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Great Streets make Great Cities: “Mainstreets” are vital

Hasn’t the nature of shopping changed in the last few years? Just as big box shopping centres took a stranglehold on the battle for your hard earned cash, on-line retail is now rewriting the rules of engagement and changing the way we consume. But what about local businesses? Has the traditional “mainstreet” been forgotten and how is this affecting how we use our city and create communities?

Mainstreets have traditionally been the heart of the community. Historically they have made a significant contribution to the local economy resulting in jobs, dollars staying in your community and enterprise opportunities for your family, friends and neighbours. Today the alternative sees money going to big business and their shareholders in often distant corners of the globe, making their communities prosperous instead of ours.

What was once just the corner store is now in an epic battle against the big end of town. Streets with beautiful architecture, a regular splash of sunshine and a shop owner that will remember your name are competing with air-conditioned car centric shopping centres that are clones replicated the world over with precious little character or sense of place. They’re boring! Even worse is on-line shopping, an experience with no interaction beyond entering your credit card details.

So why are local shops so important? It’s simple – great streets make great cities. Mainstreets are the remnants of the old town centre and it would be a devastating to see village life disappear altogether only to be replaced by an anonymous experience. If we are serious about revitalising our local communities, building authentic communities around vibrant streets is the real deal. London, New York and Tokyo all have villages that, when combined, make exceptional cities with places to explore.

There is no question many mainstreets are under great pressure and could be and should be better, with many looking tired and some out of vogue. They have traditionally been uncoordinated and ill equipped to take on the global giants. The good news is many Cities are playing a greater role in supporting small business by well organised Precinct Groups; but there is always more that must be done.

Cleaning, security, maintenance and communications all require a focussed and organised approach and that was a theme of my time on Council. Administration must also be bold and ave conversations with building owners to contribute to a tenancy mix that results in as street that is relevant to the community and the services they require.

I am a believe that city administrations need to get staff on the streets to have discussions with owners about pilot programs that seek quick wins on the ground. We must actively demonstrate to small business that pedestrian friendly spaces attract more street life, bring customers and hence improve the bottom line.

In a time-poor 21 Century shopping needs to be more than a chore, it needs to be social. Mainstreets must be seen as community hubs which cash in on the popularity of outdoor dining and create quality public spaces to lure people back to street life. This retail war is not just about local dollars, but also vibrancy and social cohesion; we need spaces where people can be a part of a community.

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