town centres after the pandemic (c) Kingston First


Reimagining our town centres

Tina Lofthouse talks to the people who are helping to shape the towns and high streets in south west London and Surrey for our post-pandemic world…

Over the coming months, Time & Leisure is looking at how our communities are building back after the pandemic. We’re finding out what plans are afoot from those in the know – and we also want your input and ideas. We’re starting this month with our town centres, given the huge role they play in our lives. They’re where we shop, socialise and where many work. And there’s a great deal of excitement about how they can evolve, given how much our lives have changed.

Of course, there are challenges. We’ve seen high street retailers and hospitality businesses shut everywhere but we’ve also seen incredible innovation too. Also, people need to be convinced that town centres are Covid-safe spaces – and a great deal is going on in that regard.

In our conversations with our local BIDs – Business Improvement Districts, which are business-led bodies that work to improve a particular area – we’ve heard about the fantastic ideas that have come out of the pandemic that are set to stay, and of new projects that will transform how we use town centre spaces. And we have learned of the initiatives that will help make our towns more eco-friendly.

Creating spaces

While many of us can’t wait to see our town centres bustling again, we also want a place where we can pause and step off the high street. One such initiative has recently been implemented in Wimbledon, which transformed Hartfield Walk from a previously non-descript cut-through into a family-focussed retreat, with seating, food kiosks complete with green roofs, eco murals and even a fun mini maze for tots. Pavements are being widened and the public realm improved in Putney to make pleasant spaces.

In Kingston, plans are taking shape to transform both the Eagle Brewery Wharf site by the river and the Memorial Gardens into wellbeing, socialising and entertaining spaces. Projects that looked at people’s relationships with town centre spaces were already in progress but the pandemic has really brought this to the fore. Says Kirsten Henly, Chief Executive of Kingston First: “I think that the way that people have wanted to use the town during lockdown has really emphasised that what we were looking at in terms of how spaces can contribute towards people’s wellbeing and their enjoyment of the town is critical.”

Community views

Feedback is being sought on how these spaces develop: Adds Kirsten: “We have started conversations with the local business community and residents and want people to be able to feel that they can help shape two really important spaces, both in terms of their history and their role within the community.”

For our towns to thrive, their communities need to have their say, in both the bigger projects and the smaller but no less important aspects that make an area feel like its people care. Epsom town centre is launching an initiative to see the town literally blooming in summer. Says Karen Pengelly, BID Manager at Go Epsom: “We have volunteer groups and residents getting involved in planting and we’re entering the town in to the South East in Bloom competition but it’s not just about having flowers on the street corners, it’s much more than that in terms of giving people ownership of their town.”

Dining out in the new normal

Our restaurants are a vital part of our town centres. They’ve been badly hit by the pandemic but the innovation that has come out of it has been amazing and is leading to some exciting developments. Battersea’s Northcote Road shut to traffic during the summer so that restaurants could spill over on to the pavements. And more of our local towns are exploring how to up the number of al fresco sites, with pavement dining a great way to help restaurants without outdoor spaces. Many of our restaurants explored offering takeaway for the first time and some even branched out into whole new areas. Says Roz Lloyd-Williams, Executive BID Director, The Clapham Junction BID, which covers a number of high streets in Battersea around Clapham Junction. “We’ve been so impressed to see how our businesses have diversified so quickly during the pandemic. One example – Taverna Travestere in St John’s Hill – was so successful with their temporary conversion from a restaurant into a deli & greengrocer, that the owner is opening a new Italian deli and butchers in Northcote Road in April – in addition to the existing restaurant. Restaurants were also quick to offer their own bespoke home delivery services to challenge the likes of Deliveroo.”

Mixing up the high street

Another positive development is how the make up of our high street is changing. Big brands will always be a part of the equation but during lockdown we engaged more with our local businesses – and want to support them going forward. Says Nicola Grant, Executive Director of Positively Putney: “We know that people have explored their local businesses throughout lockdown and we anticipate this trend to continue, and for local people to use their local facilities more. Putney residents have always been very loyal, but often too busy to appreciate what is on their doorstep – lockdown has allowed them that time.”

Community feeling is stronger than ever, and we want to support our local businesses where we can. But they still have to compete with the chains – whether that is by offering something better, something different, or an enhanced experience. Says Sally Warren, Strategic Marketing Adviser for Love Wimbledon: “I think we’re going to see a different make up of what is on the high street, which is really exciting. We recently saw two zero waste stores open, for example. We also had art collectives who got together and decided that they wanted a retail presence in the town. So, these are the kinds of step changes to what I think is the new high street which has that relationship very much with local people.”

Town centres want to mix it up. In Kingston, a partnership with the university has been created so that artists can take over temporarily vacant stores to become creative hubs. Says Kirsten: “It’s community grown, it’s creative, and it’s about evolving how temporarily empty units can be used to diversify the town centre.”

Marketing campaigns and loyalty schemes are in place to help keep our spend in the area. Several towns also profiled the local people behind the businesses – either on local billboards or online – so that we can see the faces and hear the stories behind our local companies. The loyalty schemes will be more important than ever. Says Roz: “We’re encouraging residents to shop local with The Junction App and in June we’re launching the ‘The Junction Loyalty League’, which is integrated within the App and will also encourage residents to shop within the community.”

Culture & identity

Our towns are also looking at their identity, too. The often heard criticism of the ‘homogenisation of the high street’ hits hard and it seems that towns have fought back by emphasising what makes them different, and even what they stand for. Public art is reflecting this. I

In Epsom, they will unveil a statue to suffragette Emily Davison. Battersea will get a statue of London’s first black mayor John Archer. In Wimbledon, a huge mural has been created with the original eco-warriors The Wombles spreading a modern-day green message. And when public events are back in full swing, this is what will make our towns stand out and draw us in.

Epsom has live music planned for the summer, and even a vintage cinema bus coming to town. Its market square is already booked up with specialist markets, featuring everything from vegan food to antiques. Indeed, our love for our local markets grew fonder during lockdown, providing safe shopping in the open air, and providing a sense of community.

Green growth

Our town centre regrowth is being built on a sustainable and greener recovery. The use of e-cargo bikes is increasing, and they came into their own during lockdown with businesses using them for local deliveries. Even our lamp-posts are being considered for greening with plants grown on them to help clean up pollution.

Less visible but no less important is how town centre businesses are dealing with their waste, such the Putney Pedals Recycling project, collecting business waste using an e-bike and moving the waste to a consolidation point. Meanwhile, The Junction BID will partner with the Steering Committee of Plastic Free Northcote Road, with an aim to reduce single use plastic usage in the area.

But in terms of a green revolution in our towns, the most powerful tool might be the legacy of the pandemic itself. It remains to be seen how many people will still be working from home or at least working flexibly but if that continues, we’ll be commuting less. And our engagement with what’s on our doorstep is stronger than ever. Cycle routes are being expanded, and we also saw in lockdown how a long talked about concept of a ‘20 minute neighbourhood’, where everything we need is within a 20 minute walk, actually become a daily reality for many. If this continues, it will have a huge impact on the very nature of our towns, and on our lives.

Email us your views – town centres after the pandemic – what ideas do you have that would help our towns, high streets and communities rebuild? Write to us: