It may have been a really long time since you’ve visited a handfull of the remaining American main streets. Perhaps if you live in a small town far away from a city or suburban sprawl, or if you have gone on vacation recently to a place where people spend good money to walk down one of these “endangered species”, you may be lucky. But if you are like the majority of Americans and live in a city or suburban sprawl it has probably been months. The truth is that when retail started to the meet the demands of the automobile instead of the demands of the pedestrian, main streets throughout America were given a death sentence. Ever since we realized the placemaking, urban design, and historical value of these lost elements of our urban fabric, we have been trying to recreate them through our new urbanist and lifestyle center developments.
We lost our main streets a while ago, but other countries have been behind the curve. As many of you know I’ve spent some time practicing in the United Kingdom, and visit often. In some cases, it feels like England is 30 years behind us in their advancement in commercial and retail environments. And I mean that as a complement. In most places in England you can still go to the butchers, the bakers, and the newsagents. For us, these are the dreams of Mayberry. But what has become more in jeopardy over the past decade is England’s high streets.
There are many threats that high streets face now, especially during the economic downturn. Even in an environment of more sustainable planning based on limiting sprawl and centralizing development around strong transit links, high streets are losing to out-of-town superstores and American-like super-sized shopping malls. While I have not researched this issue thoroughly, I have spent enough time in the UK to witness some of the biggest offenders: Bluewater Shopping Centre in Kent, Lakeside in Essex, Metro Centre in Newcastle and the Trafford Centre in Manchester. All four of these easily attract regional shoppers through an abundance of free parking, direct transit links from the center of nearby towns, and a large collection of the nations most popular retailers. The building form is typical: large structures surrounded by a sea of parking with poor (if any) pedestrian links to anywhere. High streets serving local populations with the daily necessities don’t stand a chance – and soon the butcher will become an extinct species just as it has in America.
But on the other hand, other cities have used modern shopping malls as a redevelopment tool for their center cities and high streets. In Reading, 36 miles west of London and Birmingham, in the middle of the country, two shopping malls have brought economic vitality and social activity. These two well-planned retail developments can serve as an example of how America can breath new life into the main streets that still remain.
These shopping malls accomplish two things in their urban form while bringing economic health to the center of the city:
- Enhance the health and vitality of the High Street
- Enliven public spaces in the center of the city
The Oracle Shopping Centre
The Oracle in Reading is a 22 acre site completed in 2000 that increased the retail square footage in the town centre by a third. Its shape and interior path is part of a “leisure trail” that goes through town. Instead of locating it anywhere in the middle of the city centre, the main entrance of the shopping mall was integrated into the street wall of the high street. The interior shopping area of the mall provides a natural pedestrian connection between the River Kennet, the high street, and other outdoor shopping streets. Instead of taking away pedestrian traffic from the high street, the Oracle instead enhances it and allows it to be the primary retail access point in the city centre.
Also, the Oracle doesn’t turn its back on the rest of the city, but instead creates outdoor public spaces along the River Kennet, celebrating its heritage and returning it to a central role in the Reading. Active ground floor spaces enliven the public spaces, creating a place for festivals and events throughout the year. The design of the Oracle achieves all of this in the urban form, while meeting the modern retail standards and proving the shopping experience demanded of the market.
The Bullring – Birmingham
The Bullring in Birmingham replaced one of England’s original indoor malls in 2003 and hosts 36.5 million visitors a year. Its design is unique by offering over 1,300,000 square feet of modern retail space, while maintaining a physical pedestrian connection between the high streets and a historic public space, The Bullring, which has served as a market square since the middle ages and is the home of St. Martin’s Church, located here since 1263. This site is historically sensitive, and instead of maintaining the segregation between the outdoor shopping streets and the market square as the older mall had done, the Bullring restored the original pedestrian connections through the site. The new structure nestles one level underground and splits the upper level in two parts. Here, the high streets continue between the buildings, maintaining the scale of the surrounding urban form.
Behind the mall, the high street slopes towards St. Martin’s Church and the structure provides active ground floor spaces that brings activity and vibrancy to the once forgotten public space. Transforming the historic center of the city to a place of entertainment 24 hours a day, has restored it as one of the main identities of the city.
American cities in most cases do not have the large scale, architecturally rich, and well-established main streets as those in England. The United Kingdom continues to make our same mistakes, but a couple of cities have saved their high streets as a result of foresight in urban planning and good urban design. These should act as an example to planners in the United States who continue to try to enliven our historic main streets through programming. While these programs are valuable in their own right, planners should consider not trying to save what we have in its current form, but instead transforming main streets to meet the modern retail demands of shoppers and developers. Let’s take a page from Reading and Birmingham’s book, and make a conscious effort to locate the uses that drive unsustainable suburban sprawl in the city center in a well-designed way that enhances the historic fabric that we have preserved. Let’s put Main Streets back where they belong…