Ambitious plans to turn Oxford Street into an exemplar for sustainable city-making provide hospitality venues with plenty of food for thought. Nick Hughes reports.
Images of previously bustling city centres transformed into ghost towns by covid-19 have neatly captured the other-worldly nature of the past 12 months. With commuters asked to work from home and retail and hospitality venues forced to shut their doors, high streets – particularly those in major cities – have been left deserted save for the odd runner or essential worker.
What comes next is the subject of intense debate. One popular narrative is that future high streets will no longer be key commercial districts but urban communities with a mix of residential dwellings, offices, retail and leisure venues. They will also be much greener than their predecessors – both literally and figuratively.
Discussions about the future of our high streets are nothing new of course: the decisive shift to online retail in recent years has left traditional retail chains burdened with huge rents and not enough customers to cover them profitably. Many brands have disappeared, leaving behind empty premises.
What the pandemic has done is bring a fresh urgency to the task of rethinking our high streets.
Now, the council responsible for perhaps the most iconic street in Britain has laid out its plans for a more sustainable future. In February, Westminster City Council published a vision for the Oxford Street District – a major part of the West End of London that covers Marble Arch, Oxford Circus and East Oxford Street and has been hit hard by the pandemic through a dramatic drop in footfall and a growing number of business closures.
It provides food for thought for owners of the thousands of cafés, food-to-go outlets, restaurants and pubs that form a key part of the ecosystem of busy city and town centres.
The vision is for the Oxford Street District to become “the greenest, smartest, most sustainable district of its kind anywhere in the world”, according to Cllr Rachael Robathan, leader of Westminster City Council.
A framework document sets out plans to transform the district into “an exemplar for sustainable city-making” with “clean air and streets, zero-carbon energy and transport, locally sourced produce, and thriving businesses in a circular economy”.
It promises to provide “a habitat for wildlife and a haven for city-dwellers” and become “a place to explore and experience, rather than to simply pass through”. The green centrepiece is a proposed 25m high ‘Marble Arch Hill’ covered in flora and fauna.
It sounds like a utopia both for visitors and for progressive food and hospitality businesses who have sustainability running through their DNA. Indeed, the council says the future district will be populated by “forward-looking brands [……] including pop-ups, offices, restaurants and cultural or leisure activities”.
It wants the district to develop a global reputation for “innovative, sustainable, circular economy businesses” characterised by a “low environmental footprint across residential neighbourhoods, businesses and the visitor economy”.
Inviting businesses onto high streets based on their sustainability credentials could be a game-changing approach if widely adopted. Imagine a future where the pressure for your entire business model to be green comes not just from campaigners and certain customers but from local councillors and planning officers.
There is, of course, an alternative vision where landlords desperately seeking to fill empty sites sell to the highest bidder. The FT recently reported that overseas fast-food chains like the Filipino fried chicken brand Jollibee and German Doner Kebab are “gobbling up” high street sites left vacant by struggling retailers and casual dining operators.
There’s no suggestion that major chains will be excluded from Westminster’s future vision, however there is an explicit intention to support “small and medium-sized enterprises to establish themselves” in a district that will have less “traditional retail” and more “leisure, entertainment and experience”.
The plan also involves creating “flexible indoor and outdoor spaces that respond to changing land use and demands from day to night”. In a city that already boasts numerous food halls and street markets, more pop-up food venues look certain to be on the cards.
Spades hit the ground earlier this month on a proposed range of interim improvements on Oxford Street that will deliver additional pedestrian space, pop-up parks, new lighting, landscaping and greening projects with the aim to create “an attractive, covid-secure, environment for visitors post lockdown”.
It’s an exciting vision and one that should give other policy makers, as well as businesses, plenty to ponder.
The pandemic has greatly damaged our town and city centres but it has also provided what Westminster Council describes as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to rebuild a vital part of the public realm.
Westminster will surely not be alone in trying to seize the moment.