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Community / Public space

What makes a truly great high street?

Last week, the Academy of Urbanism held its annual Urbanism awards. The much coveted Best European City prize went to Rotterdam, which attracted votes  thanks to its “predominantly young, open, tolerant community”, “urban design” and “new business models”.

What intrigued us, though, was the “Great Street” award, which is given to a standout UK high street or main road every year. What about a street could make it better than all the other streets, we wondered? And what criteria would you use to decide?

For clues, we looked to this year’s winner: the confusingly named “Bridge Street / North Street” in Taunton, a town in Somerset, which fought off Elwick Road in Ashford, Kent to the top spot.

 Excitement building, we headed to Google Street View to take a look at this award-winning road. This is what we found:

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Slightly disheartened, we headed a little further down the road (it’s quite long; hence, we suppose, the two names):

Don’t get us wrong – Bridge Street / North Street looks like a perfectly nice main road, replete with a Poundland and a White Stuff. But from what we could see, there didn’t seem to be anything particularly special about it – and if we’re being really picky, as high streets go, a non-pedestrianised one seems an odd choice.

But, we assumed, the judges at the Academy of Urbanism must have had their reasons, so we asked Geoff Haslam, an Academy member, architect and the lead assessor for the award, what they were. Apparently, the award actually goes to streets which are good examples of either “transformation” or “stewardship” by the local council – they’re not perfect, but they’re going in the right direction.

According to Haslam and the assessors’ report, Taunton’s high road stuck out for the following reasons:

1. The council is improving things

About 10 years ago, the town authorities invested, like many others, in a repaving and traffic calming scheme for the high street. Taunton’s advantage though, according to Haslam, was the decade-long plan it put together to make sure progress continued: that included more traffic measures and bypasses to draw non-shopper traffic away from the high street.

2. It’s like most other high streets, but a bit better

Haslam agrees that “the street itself is not dissimilar to many high streets”. Yet somehow, it beat off Elwick Street in Ashford, which, in Haslam’s words, was “fantastic, in pure design terms”.

Bridge Street / North Street apparently won out because it contained a good balance of cars – necessary in a large town, Haslam says, to keep trade up – and pedestrian measures. Recently, for example, the Taunton city authority improved the pedestrian route from the train station and built a few new pedestrian  bridges on routes into the town centre.  

3. Areas off the main road have been converted into public spaces and cafés

… like this charming area on James Street, just off the main road (we imagine the scaffolding’s gone by now)

 

Members of the academy nominate streets for the award (there were around 70 entrants this year), and provide photos, quotes from locals and context to show how the street has changed over the past year. The judges then pay a visit to the final three locations, and judge on criteria including environmental sustainability, “local character”, transport options, commercial success and the value the street holds for the community.

 So if you’d like to see your high street up on that stage next year, start lobbying an Academy member now. And maybe introduce some new speed bumps and delightful cafes with outdoor seating.
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