Even prior to COVID-19, the way people have been (or have not been) visiting and spending money in commercial town centres and neighbourhoods has been shifting. How and to what outcome?
The rise of online commerce and food delivery service providers, etc have created new challenges most small businesses have either adapted to or struggled to adapt for various reasons. And it has all come at a cost to the relevance of commercial town centres, high streets, local shops, etc. Traditional successful high streets such as Beaufort Street and Rokeby Road in Western Australia, Chapel Street in Melbourne, and so on, are all examples of commercial centres struggling to find their way and re-establish their connection with local people and a targeted consumer audience.
The decline in retail businesses has been obvious over the past few years, especially since the establishment of Amazon and other major online retailers in the Australian commercial market. And the more recent growth in online delivery providers, such as UberEats and Deliveroo, is creating a new challenge. Some restaurants have been adapting to this new environment by relocating to light industrial suburbs with lower rents because their shopfront presence in a town centre is becoming less important. And now COVID-19…
New ‘lockdown’ measures are being implemented for the necessary safety of our wider community, but streets are empty, and the relevance of town centres in the current crisis is nearly non-existent. And although these are temporary measures, it is forcing consumers to become even more technology savvy, which can only continue to support online industries, and yet again adversely impact the relevance of high streets and commercial town centres. Oh yeah, and people are even more careful about the perceived safety of physical distancing, hygiene and cleanliness … another reason to avoid physical interaction, public transport (which are connected through town centres) and shop online instead.
Is there a bright side or light at the end of the dark, windy and uncertain tunnel?
Fortunately for our society, we still want to support local businesses and we still crave physical interaction – seeing other people, being outside and feeling good about our communities and place. Seeing people smile is still a contagious joy. We haven’t completely lost our society to Facebook. What I have witnessed from COVID-19 is we still like to be together and support each other, which has been publicly displayed in the huge amount of new physical distancing social interventions around the world.
So, if we can learn to work together and be together, we might find a new solution. And this will require strong leadership and the ability of Local Government, business commerce and neighbourhood community groups to come together. We need to re-write the fate of our town centres, create our own positive ‘adaptive’ nature and become even better ‘enablers’ of positive action. Putting on my own aspirational hat, possibly even allow local businesses and community to create their own future possibilities….imagine.
The online community has been relatively free to do as they wish, and it has allowed huge growth and potential. What if places could become more free, have the ability to create more change and have stronger control of their own purpose and fate? What would be the new competitive advantages of our town centres?
We often hear economic development, business and property organisations advocate for ‘cutting red tape’. This seems like an opportune period for local government officials to review alfresco dining laws, signage policies, parking, change of use, small event applications, etc… and maybe, just maybe (again aspirational hat is back on) throw them out the window or atleast allow more actual freedom for business and community members to more easily compete with global online competitors and innovate to emerging challenges more quickly.
And if businesses feel more freedom and confidence to innovate, this may even create new kinds of social and creative responsibilities and opportunities to continue enhancing our public environment. Business and community leaders could even start thinking about even more robust change, the growing or evolving identity of our town centres and how we all fit into the picture of leading positive and pro-active places. And local government can learn from these new changes, new growing relationships and also continue to innovate. Woah. I’m gonna slow down.
So…what do we mean by working together to become better ‘enabler’s, which enact positive change and economic growth? Instead of working in silos or isolation, it is more about learning new ‘interdependent’ outcomes and becoming more ‘purpose seeking’. How can local government, positive business action groups and small businesses work together and create a shared purpose? And achieve that purpose? How do we take action together and re-write our own future?!?
These questions and solutions may seem challenging, however communities all over the world are building great relationships and bringing back ‘localism’ into the heart of town centres.
See below a quick example of a recent project completed in partnership with the Campbelltown City Council, Minto local community and Town Team Movement.
A Recovery Response for Town Centres:
In summary, challenges for small businesses in town centres has not just started in the past month. Unfortunately, positive change solutions just haven’t been as necessary as they are right now and we haven’t had the opportunity to slow down to consider positive change management. This current period of ‘unknown’ could be a golden period for innovation and reclaiming back the relevance and competitive advantages of our town centres. This is an opportunity for everyone to play a bigger role in kickstarting our town centres.
The prosperity of your business is directly related to how many people are in your street. And that depends on ‘the vibe’ in the street or ‘sense of place’. Build the quality and diversity of the experience package on offer in your street and you will see the dividends. - David Engwicht
Below are a few of our ideas:
- Empowerment, not just Engagement
Let’s start new with our engagement approach. I think we can all do a better job of listening and co-designing new ideas and solutions. And engagement doesn’t just happen on a survey or whiteboard. The best engagement could be watching people vote with their feet and community delivering their own projects to improve their place. Let’s test this new approach and allow the community to come up with COVID-19 recovery action programs.
- Break the rules & make it easy to innovate
We know some council policies are outdated. Let’s not just think about cutting red tape, let’s use this time to rejuvenate the regulatory framework and allow small businesses more freedom and opportunities to innovate and be better prepared for a post-lockout environment.
- An enabling leadership approach
This is an opportune period for self-reflection, compassion and a review of our leadership approach and ‘purpose seeking’ outlook. Are we doing things to follow a process or to create great outcomes? The response might lead to more enabling outcomes for our community.
- Business and Community Grants – Let the community lead the future of your town centres
Economic and Community stimulus is still going to be necessary when this whole mess is over. Review your current grants, how they can be more accessible and aimed at creating better town centres for small businesses and people.
- Experiment with new Ideas – don’t be afraid to fail fast, fail cheap and always ask for public feedback
Tactical urbanism has been around for a while, but we haven’t really taken advantage of the benefits. We’ve been told to support creative and construction industries, so now is a great opportunity to trial new low-cost infrastructure projects to redesign our streets and make them more adaptive and innovative for a new environment. How can technology help us review these outcomes and make better decisions in the future of public space outcomes?
The conclusion (I know, finally!)
Maybe I’m writing this with my head too far in the clouds… or maybe robust positive change can actually be a reality. Most of these ideas do not require huge budgets or massive changes in leadership (or more process!!! – do more by doing less), but it does require a new approach.
An approach focused on outcomes, purpose and community and business collaboration. A shared future and a shared opportunity to shape the successful future of town centres. It’s time to really get started and push forward.