… the High Street

January 19, 2012 at 4:41 pm 1 comment

‘Thanks’ to a tweet by @Feria_Urbanism, I spent too much of Tuesday night watching BBC Parliament, where MPs where debating ‘The Future of the High Street’. There were at least 4 people watching and tweeting, not bad considering the number of MPs taking part (thirty?).

High Streets, communities and urban design interest me, although I’m ‘self-educated’ in the latter, by which I mean that I’ve read Jane Jacobs and get pissed off at pedestrian crossings.

The MPs were referencing The Portas Review, Mary Portas’ report into the future of our high streets.

Mid-speech, one MP (I think it was the opposition minister for local government and communities) seemed to be listing the features and infrastructure that are essential to our town centres and I flippantly asked my fellow tweeters if The Portas Review mentioned public toilets.

I doesn’t. Having now flicked through the report, it is instead about Business Rates, Planning Policy and Other Things that I don’t understand so must be important. As it should. It’s very good.

I was only holding out  for a passing reference, along with ‘bins’ and ‘flower baskets’. Public toilets always seem trivial, and yet no one can deny that they’re part of the urban infrastructure. Are bus stops trivial?

“The out-of-town shopping centre is sterile and not a great experience, but if you have a kid it is easier and makes you suddenly go less into town”

33-year-old man with his 1-year-old daughter.

There was a lot of talk about free parking during the MPs’ debate. This was something that out-of-town retail parks and shopping centres could offer over their high street rivals. However the quote above isn’t from the high street review; it’s from our research, which is how I know that he wasn’t just talking about parking, although I’m sure that was a factor.  He was talking about toilets. This father, and others, have stopped visiting the high street in part because of toilets.

I could go on.

I could mention ‘100 ways to Improve the High Street’, a collaboration between the National Skills Academy for Retail, the Association of Town Centre Management, Local Government Improvement and Development and the Institute of Place Management, which, aside from a passing reference in #42, Reversing Decline of Existing Markets (“This includes toilet facilities, credit card payment systems and refrigeration for fresh produce…”) failed to find room out of 100 for public toilets or community toilet schemes, despite describing itself as ‘a collection of schemes’.

I emailed the contact person to express my surprise. Their reply left me more depressed. Is this a reason to omit something?

“Public toilets could possibly appear in a number of sections in this guide as their use may change depending on whether we are talking about changing room facilities for those with young children to the night-time economy.”

The Portas Review mentions local markets.  It also recommends that Town Teams should focus on making high streets accessible, attractive and safe. To explain this, it mentions ‘our ageing population [who] will need the same great access to high streets that they have to out-of-town centres, by car as well as by bus and other methods of public transport.’

I went to a seminar about attracting older people to out-of-town retail parks. They stressed the importance of public transport, parking and level access, but ‘somewhere to sit’, ‘somewhere to have a cup of tea’, and toilets should be high up the list too. As is so often the case with public toilets, that’s common sense talking as much as it is ‘expert research’.

Back in the 90s, whenever my family went to the retail park, we’d always end up at the store that had the café and the loo, regardless of whichever store it was that we’d gone to visit.

This must have had an impact on the footfall into that store; isn’t getting people through the door half the battle? 4 years of weekends visiting my granny with my parents means that I’ve visited every garden centre from Shrewsbury to Birmingham; garden centres being the perfect outing for anyone looking for 1-2 hours of gentle amusement that include:

  • fresh air
  • cup of tea
  • level access
  • toilet

Some of them wouldn’t survive if it wasn’t for those of us in search of a hot drink and a piece of cake.

Our high streets need to become destinations. Mary Portas’ vision is that they are places ‘where we go to engage with other people in our comunities, where shopping is just one small part of a rich mix of activities’.

Well, at the risk of being flippant, out-of-town or town centre, I couldn’t last more than an hour anywhere that didn’t have a loo, and I’m perfectly healthy (I think).

We live in a convenience culture, but out-of-town shopping centres don’t just offer convenience; they offer a public convenience. The high street should too.


Entry filed under: Urban Design. Tags: .

… Analysing London … UK GovCamp 2012

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. David Orr (@orrconsult)  |  June 22, 2012 at 11:02 am

    Gail. We @loveliskeard won our Portas bid with a cheeky reference to creating ‘floral toilets’ i.e. making our public loos more welcoming through looking after them as a community asset, not a piece of detritus that we are embarrassed to have. Just before the bid there had been some local outcry after a visitor left a note to say how appalling they thought our loos were. Council to blame, no money, action had to be taken etc. By the time the Olympic Torch came a man had been round with some white paint, but it’s still a reluctantly provided council outpost, not a community asset. I have always been impressed by the lovely Victorian toilets next to the Humber river in Hull that I came across a few years back. Potted plants, classical music, air freshener etc all made the place, and me, smile. So it’s on our list to have a go at something here. Next stop… elf and safety.. David


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