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Close your eyes and imagine a public space

What do you instantly see?

Were you picturing a public square? A park? A marketplace? Or even just a street?

All of these and more would be correct. Public space is essentially somewhere which is open and accessible to people. However, in our technologically run world our public spaces are changing. They are becoming fragmented and less clearly defined.

Just the other day while sitting in my room in Newcastle, I suddenly found myself on an Italian balcony watching fireworks light up the night sky. How you might ask. Through the wonders of Skype! Now this undoubtedly was a fantastic moment and a wonderful, unexpected way of ending my day. But it brings into question how technology is affecting and changing the way we experience places.

Lecturer Georgiana Varna presented a fascinating lecture on ‘Measuring Public Space’. She is interested in challenging if we can create ‘very good’ public places or whether it is just an illusion. Through her PhD research she developed a theoretical ‘Star Model of Publicness’ to use as a tool for measuring public spaces. The Star Model looks at 5 key themes: ownership, physical configuration, civility, animation and control. This model enables these key characteristics of spaces to be compared to help identify what works or doesn’t.

During her lecture, Georgiana made mention of the Highstreet debate and asked:

“What do we do with the Highstreets in 20, 30, 50 years when we’re all online?”[1]

This question really stuck with me.

The Highstreets used to be considered the social hubs of our towns and cities but undoubtedly with emergence of online shopping they have begun to suffer and see less footfall. Can we really see a future ahead of us where there are no longer shops lining our streets? What would our cities be without shopping?

We are witnessing the smartphone change the world, much like the car and the printing press have done. As a result, it has led to academics like Don Mitchell going so far as to question if we will reach a point where we have “created a society that expects and desires only private interactions”[2].  While we undoubtedly live through screens more now than ever before, I still find it very hard to believe this would ever be a reality.  Humans need human contact for their own well-being and there have been numerous studies to support this. Both Jane Jacobs and Jan Gehl have written extensively about how people are drawn to people. With Gehl stating that “the presence of other people, activities, events, inspiration and stimulation comprise one of the most important qualities of public spaces altogether.”[3] This should therefore give us hope that our public spaces will continue to be both needed and desired. But in terms of our Highstreets, and our shops specifically, I do believe that how they are designed and what they offer will need to change in order to maintain their social, as well as economic dominance. The question is how?

The concept of convenience has always been an issue. Back in 1961 Jane Jacobs wrote that “when dis­tance inconvenience sets in, the small, the various and the personal wither away“[4]. It is, therefore, unsurprising that shops are succumbing to the squeezing pressures that online shopping are creating as it allows people to shop wherever they are. How do we, therefore, encourage people to go to the Highstreet to shop?

One way of increasing the number of people in an area is the amount of seating available. William H Whyte did a study on ‘The Design of Spaces’ which concluded that the “plazas with the most [seating] tended to be among the most popular”[5]. However, while “retail is dependent on public space and a steady flow of people”[6], being in a commuter flow and providing seating still isn’t enough. To be able to compete with the likes of Amazon, shops and Highstreets will need to offer something you can’t get online to tempt us back out to the Highstreets and enable these public engagements and interactions.

Michele Chang-McGrath believes that “for a long time it was more about providing access, distribution, getting goods into the market; but products alone are no longer enough.”[7] Highstreets will need to provide an experience. In essence they will need to find a way of appealing to a new breed of shopper.


I, therefore, would like to ask you the reader to think about:

What would draw you to back to the Highstreet?

Or if you do shop on the Highstreet regularly

What is it that keeps encouraging you to go back?


Please do share your thoughts!




[1] Varna, G. (2019) Measuring Public Space, Lecture, Newcastle University, delivered 31st Oct 2019

[2] Mitchell, D (1995) cited from Varna, G. (2019) Measuring Public Space, Lecture, Newcastle University, delivered 31st Oct 2019

[3] Gehl, J. (1987) Three Types of Outdoor Activities, in The City Reader, pp.534

[4] Jacobs, J. (1961) Death and Life of Great American Cities, New York:  Random House, pp.147

[5] Whyte, W. (1988) The Design of Spaces, in The City Reader, pp.515

[6] Karrholm, M. (2012) Retailising Space: Architecture, Retail and the Territorialisation of Public Space, Surrey: Ashgate Publishing Limited, pp76

[7] BBC Newsnight. (2018) Is the British Highstreet in Crisis. [YouTube video] Available at: [Accessed: 17/10/19]



[1] Wifesun, Fireworks & Corwd, Video, Depositphotos, Accessed 11th November, Available at: <>

[2] Varna, Georgiana M. (2011) Assessing the publicness of public places: towards a new model. PhD thesis, Pp 83

[3] high-street-Ibig-wed, Lincolnshire Today, Accessed 11th November, Available at: <>

[4] Market, Visit Berlin, Accessed 11th November, Available at: <>

[5] Whyte, W. Sighting Map Example, Process: A Design Journey, Accessed 10th November, Available at: <>

One response to “What would our cities be without shopping?”

  1. Thank you, Charlotte, for your insightful piece on the important issue of the changing High Street. I agree with your statements about how the ever-growing reliance on technology is drastically changing the way people choose to shop and reducing the viability of stores. In July 2019, 10.3% of shops on our high streets were empty, and this past year even more of our major retailers announced store closures (Karen Millen and Coast) or have gone bust (Toys R Us and Maplin) (Simpson, 2019).

    You liken the growing reliance on technology to previous transport innovations like that of the car. From when cars were introduced in the 1900s, cities designs have focused around the needs of car users. In the present day, we are just starting to realise the consequences of this with the issues of climate change and people’s reliance on the car as their primary mode of transport. This makes me wonder if we need to plan now for the growing future reliance on technology and try to future proof our town centres and other facilities.

    You raise some interesting questions regarding drawing people back to the high street. I think it is important to explore how technology is shaping the way we shop in order to answer the questions you pose. There is a growing increase in the amount of purchases made online (approximately 20%), while there is a decrease in the footfall of people on the high streets (Simpson, 2019). Other factors causing people to shop less is the money being spent elsewhere, on experiences and lifestyle, as well as many major job cuts (Simpson, 2019). Through understanding this we can begin to contemplate what our high streets will become in the future, as shopping potentially moves to being purely online. I agree with your comment that the convenience of online shopping adds to its appeal, as suggested by Jane Jacobs (1961). However, the high street has the advantage of being able to get a product there and then, and to establish an items quality and fit. Demko-Rihter and Ter Hall (2015) even proposed the idea that technology might help towards the revival of town centres, with apps for the shopping centres helping to draw people back.

    Extending this thought process, if technology can have such a dramatic effect on the high street, what other services could be similarly devastated? Could we end up living in a world where technology is used as the main form of communication and to perform most public services? If this is the case, what other buildings and uses will start to lose their purpose, be abandoned and create a dead space?


    Demko-Rihter, J. and Ter Hall, I. (2015). Revival of high street retailing – the added value of shopping apps, in Amfiteatru Economic. 17(39):632-645.

    Jacobs, J. (1961). Death and Life of Great American Cities, New York: Random House, pp.147.

    Simpson, E. (2019). High Street: How many UK shops have closed? Available at: . Accessed on: 02/01/20.

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