Having worked for some years as a design and retail consultant, I have been dismayed by the over-saturation of faceless, spirit-less high streets and shopping centres throughout the UK, as a shopper as well as a professional. Where visiting large towns or city centres such as Reading, Birmingham, Glasgow, Leeds, London or even farther, cities such as Amsterdam, Geneva, Athens makes little difference to the story and identity of the place. When the McD’s, Starbucks’, H&Ms, M&S’, Specsavers’ and Express/Metro this and thats dictate the visual pace and staple diets (literally!) at street-level. Then of course the inevitable and subsequent demise of the local high street and disintegration of community spirit and local enterprise which have been on a downward spiral for some time now.
To help counter this effect, schemes such as empty-shop projects have sprung up throughout the country (my local group is the fabulous ThinkArk who set up a scheme in Cardiff in 2010) and projects such as The Canning Town Caravanserai in London is catching the attention and imagination of those concerned with creating a new kind of public space, a hive of activity, enterprise and experiential learning for all.
In ancient times Caravanserais were trade posts supporting the flow of commerce, information and people across the network of trade routes covering Asia, North Africa and southeastern Europe. As Sorwar Ahmed, Policy Connector for The Canning Town Caravanserais writes:
“Post clone-town and the death of the high street, projects like the Caravanserai can create an alternative retail model, a place of vitality, enterprise and exchange – an alternative commercial space which brings together a community of creators, producers and retailers to share their skills and learn from each other’s experience, providing a flexible and supportive environment for small enterprises to develop”.
Key to the Canning Town Caravanserai success is that it is a ground-up project; it aims to grow and be driven by the local community with support from local organisations. It is a change-maker, a place for people to meet and exchange expertise, activating informal connections between those with skills and those who wish to learn, providing training in construction, planting and the opportunity to work and trade within enterprise units. A place where young people can trial a business, skilled people can teach, and where everyone can visit.
Have these grass-roots projects kick-started a new generation of public spaces and alternative models to counter the current highstreet mundanality, bringing together trade, enterprise, entertainment, eating, gardening…a sense of community?
Watch this space…