‘It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.’* Whilst there is some doubt as to whether or not this is a quote from Charles Darwin, it has obvious merit and is a salient point when thinking about the future of town centres.
As we all know, the fate of the traditional high street is presently much debated, with a large proportion of towns looking at a bewildering array of projects all aimed at improving their performance and clawing back footfall. Indeed, we are working with a number of different market towns and businesses helping them to do exactly that.
What is clear, is that fundamental to the future of the high street is the collective force of the businesses that drive them and their ability to adapt to meet the changing needs of the time. Town centres were, of course, originally formed as trading centres, a place where business was transacted and goods exchanged. Over the last ten years with the rise of the internet and huge shifts in consumer habits, the nature of trading and exchanging goods has changed more than it has done in the last half a century. This is the starting point for reconceptualising what town centres could be.
It is perhaps useful to think about the unprecedented change that the high street is experiencing as not too dissimilar to the change that farming went through in the last few decades. Indeed, Philip Bicknell from the National Farmers Union (NFU) suggests that ‘agricultural and policy reforms over the last two decades have contributed to a business environment where farmers increasingly compete against global suppliers, so a fall in the world price of a commodity impacts on returns to UK farmers.’ But, it is how the farming community reacted to this change that is of interest. By 2009 it is estimated that over half of England’s farms had diversified in some way to adapt to the new environment in which they found themselves.
Are there valuable lessons to be learnt from how another of our oldest sectors responded to seismic challenges that we can apply to our town centres? The diversification of farming has been shown to have a positive impact on those that adapted in the farming sector, a fantastic example that proves the point made (or not) by Darwin? Those that adapt to their changing environment ensure their future success.
*With thanks to Julie Bishop, who flagged up this quote at a recent marketing presentation. To learn more about Julie’s work please follow this link.