22 February 2013

Last month Osborne King, in partnership with Cahoots NI, was recognised formally for its efforts in finding creative uses for vacant retail space, picking up the Allianz Arts & Business NI Award for best Cultural Branding Initiative in Londonderry. The collaboration which Paul McAneaney, Artistic Director of Cahoots, coined ‘Window Stopping’ saw the vacant ground floor of a former bank premises on Donegall Square North transformed into a theatrical space featuring performance and illusions including talking heads and levitation all accompanied by live music.

With something like one in four of our city centre shops now vacant, this innovative use transformed an otherwise featureless façade and provided a glimpse of a creative alternative not seen in Belfast before. Considering the events of recent weeks, which at a macro level saw the collapse of yet another iconic retailer in HMV, and in a micro sense involved the economic impact of our very own flag protests, it seems clear that the position is hardly likely to improve in 2013.

It is obvious that we need to recognise as a matter of urgency that the traditional high street model is flawed, with the size, configuration and nature of many of our shops now simply redundant. There is a chronic over-supply and the impact of out-of-town retail, ridiculous rates assessments and the internet have transformed even our premier shopping locations into a patchwork of fly posters and charity shops.

Given the alarming extent of the disintegration of our traditional high streets, we need to develop a sustainable solution to rejuvenate our towns and cities. This will require considerable thought and a structured approach to regeneration. It is frankly difficult to see how this can occur in a local context without our politicians recognising the damage that our current commercial rating system is inflicting on our high streets. Substantial tax breaks will be a necessity if we are to encourage the fundamental changes that will bring arts, community, business, educational and residential uses back to prominence as part of the mixed fabric in our urban centres.

For our city and town centres to thrive once more, they need to rediscover their points of difference, distinctiveness and character. Local policy makers and their partners need to ask two simple questions: ‘what is this place for’ and ‘who is it for?’ The answers ought then to provide the foundation for the creation of a mixed-use experience that engages the shopper once more.

I believe arts organisations have an integral part to play in the evolution of our townscapes. A carefully managed high street presence has the potential to benefit all parties to the equation and arts and performance uses should be encouraged to become part of a sustainable plan for our urban centres.

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