I was sucked into a discussion recently on the woes of Oxford Street, London’s famous shopping destination. The fact is it is no longer the destination that it was. It has suffered more than most from the COVID lockdowns, reduced tourist numbers and home working, but the focus of the grumblings went back further than that, bemoaning the numerous failed attempts to pedestrianise this most famous of streets.
Whilst I agree completely with the pedestrianisation, the consensus was that this was the key to restoring the past glories. It will certainly take more that an absence of traffic, and the reality is that Oxford Street will never be the same again – a pure retail destination. Too many things have permanently changed in consumer and social behaviour.
Oxford Street could still be a wonderful destination. Better and more popular than ever. But not for shops, but a diverse and attractive, multi-layered community. “Oxford Street Village”…no less.
An important lesson should be taken from Valencia. Valencia is a bustling city in south-east Spain, near the coast. It did have a river. The river flowed directly through the centre of the city. It split the city in two as it made its way to the sea, an obstacle to a single dynamic metropolis. It also in 1957 flooded dramatically, killing scores of people, and flooding 75% of the city.
The city rulers, urged by the people, did something brave and extraordinary, and wonderful. They diverted the river around the city. They then converted the riverbed into the most incredible green and natural community space that now attracts and connects the people of Valencia and beyond. “Jardín del Turia” was born, and it continues to evolve to this day. There is parkland, sports and leisure facilities, children’s’ playgrounds, exercise space, formal gardens, and the most beautiful modern architecture in the shape of a new aquarium and conference centres.
The lessons are there for Oxford Street. Primarily, it should not be considered just as a destination for outsiders, a trial, and an effort to get to, a barrier for traffic and pedestrians alike attempting to get from North to South. Oxford Street is in one of the most amazing locations, in any city in the world. It links green spaces such as Hyde Park and Regents Park, social destinations such as Carnaby Street, Soho, and Covent Garden. There are nearby museums, theatres, famous restaurants, universities, and hotels.
Above all, Oxford Street should become a glorious place to be! A glorious place to call home! Bring on the two story department stores, with new apartments above, bring on the multi-use buildings for retail and hospitality and living, build the penthouse apartments, construct the affordable housing, bring in the social amenities, new leisure and social attractions, and yes bring on the pedestrianisation, and the green spaces, parks & squares, the sports grounds, courts and fitness facilities, the outdoor markets and the places to meet, that come with traffic free areas. Bring on the fresh air. ‘A breath of fresh air.’
Grow, naturally and organically, the Oxford Street communities. Diverse residential and social hubs from Bond Street to Tottenham Court Road. Desirable places to live and work, and attractive and vibrant places to visit. For walking, for eating & drinking and yes, for shopping.
And take the biggest lesson from Valencia. After the flood, the city’s leaders initially wanted to convert the riverbed into a new super-highway. Concrete & tarmac roads for fast traffic through the city. The people pushed back and rebelled, under the banner “The bed of Turia is ours and we want green!” They had their way; they had their green and they have their communities.
Oxford Street, too, should listen to its people, not its leaders. It will be the new citizens of London, of postcode W1, that will bring life and prosperity back to this most famous of addresses. Give Oxford Street back to the people. Who would not want to live or frequent “Oxford Street Village?”
We could all do with a little Spanish sunshine in our lives. There promises to be more of that than ever as we go forwards. So, let us make hay in the sunshine. Central London hay, in the English sunshine.
In the meantime…
Retail location regeneration and communities are featured in the new book – ‘Meaning in the Retail Madness – How to be an Essential Retailer’
If you’d like to read my book for many more retailer insights and best practice. And to here my thoughts on retail’s future, then that’s an excellent idea.
I hope that the sections on how to flourish in the ‘The life and times of the Essential Retailer’ how to evolve ‘Agile Organisations’ and excel in ‘Astute Strategies’ may be a source of inspiration and guidance. You will also find 70 action plans and 90 retail best practice insights that may help you to assess your current weaknesses and opportunities.
Enjoy your read.