With the decline in traditional retail and the contraction of demand in our high streets, are our town centres still the beating heart of our local communities?

Town centres have been retail-led for the last 20 to 30 years, but prior to the trend of ‘identikit’ high streets, with familiar national brands along every major thoroughfare, town centres used to be places where people not only shopped, but lived, played and worked. Town centres were the hub of the community, and well thought-out placemaking can revive the ethos of an experience-based, social environment, at the heart of our towns.

But what does ‘placemaking’ actually mean? It should mean the process of inspiring people to collectively reimagine, reinvent and create public spaces as the heart of every community. A process that actively brings the local community along the journey brings more community buy in, more local ownership and more chance of success.

In collaboration with LSH and North Herts Council, Leonard Design have developed an Investment Prospectus to attract investment in Hitchin town centre.

Delivering placemaking in a meaningful way requires three key layers:

The first is focusing on the spaces between buildings. Spaces for people to meet, socialise, exercise, eat lunch or work. A livelier, more inviting environment is more likely to attract investment and improve the local economy.

The second is repurposing key pieces of infrastructure. Shopping malls are fast becoming white elephants in our town centres and provide key opportunities for accommodating a diverse range of uses to support local communities and economies.

The third is public-private partnerships. A lack of economic viability and fragmentation of ownerships has the potential to be solved through partnerships between local authorities and the public sector, working together for the common good. Local authorities can use compulsory purchase order (CPO) powers for land assembly to bring together whole-scale regeneration of key locations in our towns.

In the drive to enable delivery the importance of local identity also cannot be overlooked. Our town and city centres are naturally in competition with each other to attract consumers, so they must be clear in what they stand for, why people should visit and who they are. At a district-wide scale, local towns should complement each other and provide differing offers and attractions for the full breadth of demographics of the region.

Gracechurch Square in the Royal Town of Sutton Coldfield, a new key public space, at the key intersection of pedestrian movement in the centre of the town.

At a local scale this means celebrating what a place means to its local population. Leonard Design are currently working on The Gracechurch Centre in the Royal Town of Sutton Coldfield, a 70’s built, 550,000ft2 retail mall that defines one side of the high street. In the summer of 2023, it stood at 33% vacant, with a lack of retail diversity and the affluent local population shifting their retail habits to competing centres elsewhere.

Our approach to the regenerating the centre was to create a deliverable, phased plan, engaging with the local community at every opportunity. This began by identifying early opportunities to bring vitality back to the existing centre, resulting in one of its most successful Christmas trading periods in the last decade.

This first phase brought life and interest back into the centre, the next was to identify a series of key zones to be brought forward for development sequentially, ensuring the successful operation of the centre and adjacent high street.

We initially focussed on the space between buildings, capturing key movement routes and public spaces, then on the ground floor plane as a holistic whole, ensuring active frontages throughout to support the vitality of the town. Food and beverage, leisure, community, arts and culture all have a place in the plan, as well as town centre homes for the first time within the retail core, diversifying the mix of uses to ensure the vitality, safety and economy of the centre for years to come.

A busy urban plaza, masterplanned with meticulous attention to detail, features a central gazebo surrounded by people walking, sitting, and interacting. Nearby, a canal with a boat runs through the area, bordered by modern buildings with large windows designed by Leonard Design. Trees and greenery weave nature into this lively scene.
The potential for a new town square in the heart of Guildford, reconnecting the historic core of the town with the River Wey.

We are also working in Guildford, a town with great history, recognised as a highly desirable location for business and a place where people aspire to live and work, within an easy commute to central London. It has a thriving education, culture and retailing offer and has for many years been Surrey’s County town. However, it is at a crossroads, once consistently in the top 10 ‘best places to live and do business’, it no longer holds the title as Surrey’s best town. The concrete collar of the road network, the blight of flooding, the lack of town centre homes and the sharpening decline of the high street all contributed to the need for a fresh vision for the future of the town.

Our boundary included the whole of the town, so we first identified key opportunity sites and pieces of infrastructure. We defined linkages between these key sites, explored viability issues and mitigated for these with a menu of options. We defined uses, capacities, key public realm, building typologies and a design code for the different character areas across the town.

We also brought the community along with us through consultation, both with key stakeholders in the town including Courts, Police and National Trust, as well as a series of seminars with councillors and significant public engagement, garnering hundreds of thousands of impressions online and over 4,000 questions and comments. This huge evidence base allowed us to iteratively respond to the needs and wants of the local population.

Illustration of a scenic riverside park with a boat in the foreground, people walking and cycling on a path, and buildings in the background. A swan swims near the boat, and kayakers are enjoying the water. Trees line the riverbank, enhancing this graphic design of a picturesque setting.
Over 6 acres of green space connect 2km of waterways from the centre of town to the beautiful green spaces beyond. As well as new and existing communities to the North of the town.

At Sutton Coldfield and Guildford we are demonstrating that by taking a long-term view of existing infrastructure, by engaging with the local population, communities and key stakeholders, by imbuing local identity and culture to provide facilities that locals need, by not only creating a plan that is viable, but also provides quality, meaningful public space for locals, our town centres can once again be the heart of the community and support a healthy local economy.

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