A few weeks ago I was reading an interview in the Guardian and the interviewee, the writer Barbara Kingsolver, said about the Great Barrier Reef:
“You’re hearing about everything that dies, you’re not hearing about everything that’s still alive. If you think it’s dead already then you’re not going to be bothered. I almost think people gravitate towards “It’s too late” because they then don’t have to put themselves out. Only if you love something will you inconvenience yourself to work on its behalf”.
I think it is a great quote and on reading it thought immediately about our work on towns (and to a degree on high streets). As we have debated here before, the narrative about the high street in the media is almost universally negative, mainly around the metaphor of ‘death’. The blame is attributed often to the rise of online shopping and its seemingly inevitable grab of market share.
Yes, this is happening. But even if current growth rates continue, 80% of retail sales will be through physical stores in 2025. Yes, out-of-town retailing is a presence and we have too many shops in the wrong places. But some high streets are thriving and new businesses are springing up and testing the ground. Some of these are previously online only businesses. Quite a lot of them are local businesses.
If you only hear bad news, you believe the retail world has caved in. And you won’t be bothered to do anything.
What though can you do? Every time you shop online you should ask, could I make this sale locally, through a “real” store and with a “real” person? Could this be an independent store with the spend kept in the local area? If you shop online for convenience then ask yourself do I actually need that product now, this instant, or even tomorrow? Why has speed become the single vital factor in shopping?
But more than that, you can ask whether the online and the multiple mundane provides what you are looking for? I love towns and places and markets – and yes I do despair at the state of some of them – and find they provide novelty, difference, exploration and experiences (I write this seated in Grainger Market in Newcastle and having bought great local bread and cheese, as an example of difference and experience). They are worth valuing and I am inconveniencing myself in working to make them better places, through our Scotland’s Towns Partnership activities. It is a tough road and will take time. Some places may prove stubbornly intractable. But there are real signs of community led local regeneration and a re-localization and development of towns.
We must change the narrative if we want vibrant social and economic spaces. Show you care by your actions and don’t succumb to the over-stated negative. it is not too late.