In his book, A Country of Cities: A Manifesto for an Urban America, architect Vishaan Chakrabarti, argues that improved urban outcomes are created by better environments and economies which in turn lead to increased social equity. Unfortunately, while this may seem obvious to many, Chakrabarti thinks that urban planners and (in particular) technologists (the SMART City community for example) often produce towns and cities that have the opposite effect on people. He singles out the lower emphasis on supporting the movement of pedestrians and cyclists in favour of cars and vehicular traffic as an example of this.
While hoping to make urban environments more efficient, instead they produce the unintended consequence of designing out social friction. Social friction is the phrase Chakrabarti uses to describe the way places draw people together. At best these interactions bring greater familiarity, friendship and understanding, but at the very least result in a better understanding of different experiences and culture. Empathy he argues is one of the main ingredients of successful co-existence.
This is why the plight of the Main or High Street is so important. The retreat of larger store formats in the UK such as Woolworths, Debenhams, Mothercare, House of Frazer, BHS, and many local department stores are regularly in the news. However, the smaller retailers are also under threat. Over 3,000 greengrocers have gone from High Streets in the last decade. Music stores, electrical retailers and pubs are also on the wane.
Part of the reason for this is the way shopping has migrated from physical effort to on-line clicks, but the consequences for social friction are profound. It means fewer visits to communal places, more isolation, less understanding, and potential increased mental and physical health issues that impact on health systems.
Nicola Steuer, Managing Director, School of Social Entrepreneurs has observed that a bold and radical rethink may be required to recreate High Streets and town centres so that they respond better to the needs of society while also recognising the changes that the digital age has brought to the sector. This is likely to involve the social enterprises and the community businesses sector. While Steuer says these businesses aren’t silver bullets for the High Street, she thinks they will be able to replace the more traditional businesses. In an article in New Start magazine she explains that everything from a community launderette, that offers much more than a place to wash your clothes, to pubs owned and run by local people, while serving as community hubs, are springing up in place of traditional shops. Large vacated retail buildings now house spaces for new businesses set up by people who have the ideas, but never had the support or the environment to make them flourish.
A reliance on, and investment in the social enterprise sector makes a lot of sense in the current High Street trading environment. Social enterprises are experienced in coping not only with difficult trading environments, but also with solving often intractable social problems as part of their social mission. They are expert at collaboration with a range of different partners in the private, public and third sector, and are used to the kind of transparent disclosure that can win over communities where other sectors attract wariness and scepticism. As Nicola Steuer says, they uniquely straddle the worlds of commerce, charity and regeneration.
More investment and advice is now available for social enterprises to ensure that they have a better chance at survival after the first few years of start-up. Examples are Capacity, the Public Services Lab that offer support for bidding for large public sector contracts, and The School for Social Entrepreneurs, with partners including Power to Change and The Rank Foundation who have been using a new form of grant funding, called Match Trading™ to help social enterprises and community businesses increase the income they generate through trading. In the end, the aim is to re-establish the High Street as a place to visit, not only for a range of goods, but also for a place to build a business seek advice, assistance and support and to enjoy life in the company of others.
Other organisations are being set up to help businesses get established in spaces formerly occupied by uses that have become redundant. The Meanwhile Foundation is a volunteer-led charity set up in 2012 to harness expertise around utilising spaces that are waiting for a new purpose. The Foundation has set up a social enterprise arm (Meanwhile Space CIC) with the Ministry of Housing, Local Government and Communities (MGHLC) to tackle social problems linked to declining high streets such as crime, unemployment and loneliness. The business takes on premises formerly occupied as; shops and retail outlets, shopping centres, office buildings, hotels and hostels, unoccupied tenements, public buildings, development and industrial sites and military sites. To date they have created spaces for gardens and allotments, public green spaces, sports grounds, arts and culture, art clubs and restaurants, offices and shops, social institutions, temporary housing, and trade and business. Each of these transformative actions makes environmentally sustainable places and provides more homes and opportunities for people to work and socialise in neighbourhoods that had previously been in danger of being labelled ‘failing places’. More social friction.
The evidence that this model works comes from the social return on investment world. RealWorth has carried out numerous evaluations showing how pro-social and pro-environmental initiatives in regeneration contexts returns more value than either leaving the areas as underinvested places or establishing development that could be characterised as uninclusive growth.
Vishaan Chakrabarti’s vision of towns and cities being ‘engines of social friction’ and future societies ‘constructing an infrastructure of opportunity’ can only succeed if there is a plan to replace failing approaches. Backing these initiatives with societal value evidence will help investors and legislators see that High Streets occupied by productive businesses, that are also helping to create successful local communities, need to be supported and encouraged.