The Bartlett Development Planning Unit


DPU Working Paper - No. 213

Democratising the high street: London’s new commons for fairer local economies

London shop front

24 August 2022

By Hope McGee

“London’s high streets and town centres have shaped the fabric of our great city. They are a focal point for our culture, communities and everyday economies. They support the most sustainable models of living and working, including active travel and shorter commutes. And they are where new ideas, new ways of living, new businesses and new experiences are made” - Sadiq Khan in Major of London (2020, p.7)

Exploring a potential vision of the common good for London’s economic centres, this paper asks why and how economic democracy should be enacted at the scale of the high street. While COVID-19 has exacerbated inequalities along many lines, evolving values around community, wellbeing and public space also pose an opportunity for re-imagining fairer economic trajectories through a focus on place.

Often magnifying wider economic issues, the long-run decline of British high streets has been well documented. While commonly focusing on curation and design as a way to ‘activate’ these once public spaces, their complexity has given way to an equally diverse discourse, lacking consistent frameworks for guiding planning, interventions and policy.

While current high street rhetoric offers a growing focus on social value and ‘community- led development’, economic power and equity implications are frequently overlooked. This paper suggests, given the accessible and inclusive nature of high streets, the potential for situating a framework of economic development that considers a more radical restructuring of social and economic power.

Placing the principles of economic democracy within an everyday site helps to foreground people and place. Through repurposing urban space for inclusive, collective and participatory workspaces, services or social centres, high streets can play a role in reformulating value concepts. Developing an analytical framework that considers rights, ownership and deliberation, through iterative empirical analysis, this paper will address practices that could re-frame high streets to better serve their communities.

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Photo: Every one Every day Neighbourhood Shops, Barking & Dagenham  - Participatory City Foundation, 2022 - http://www.participatorycity.org/visit-us