Reimagining a place in identityThe revival of the high street

October 2013Shares

Time was when people didn't travel far. Where you were born was where you grew up. Your sense of identity was closely related to the place and the people around you. Leading sociologist Anthony Giddens whose work explores self and identity in the modern age, refers to two phases of society:  traditional and post-traditional.

The former characterised by dependence on proximity, cultural norms, familial ties and religion, remains relevant for some. Whereas 'post-traditional' is a more accurate description of the modern society that we know, experience and live in today - a society which as Giddens puts it, "‘lives in the future, rather than the past". [1] Driven by the engine of capitalism, modern society creates a context in which our identity has become more fluid, being constantly adapted and re-interpreted by the many factors that influence us and the breadth of the choices we face and make regularly.

Our sense of identity previously formed from relationships 'narrow and deep' is now shaped by relationships more 'broad and shallow'. Whilst undoubtedly those relationships with things and people close to home and heart lie at the core of how we see ourselves, so many other factors now play a part in how we form our sense of self.

Technology undoubtedly plays a critical role.  We have an unprecedented ability to build affinities with people and places that in real terms we have no connection with, enabling us to create a sense of virtual belonging. We have multiple Facebook ‘friends’ and can access a vast number of locations from our homes and beyond, allowing us to ‘experience’ places without ever having set foot there. There are no real boundaries or limitations, in the sense that we can draw from a variety of sources and places. We make virtual friends with someone on the other side of the world in an instant, yet remain unlikely to know the names of the people who live on the same street.  Our local high street is often a facsimile of others throughout the country, offering the same retail brands wherever we go. What were once local football clubs have now become global businesses.

Place identity, the collection of 'memories, conceptions, interpretations, ideas and feelings about specific physical settings', [2] is arguably less important as a factor in shaping one's own sense of identity in this modern world. Whilst we may have all felt distinctly British for the two weeks of the 2012 Olympics, does this reflect our relationship to the place itself?

Within this age of sameness and familiarity, place brands will need to work harder to differentiate themselves. Destinations need to celebrate their idiosyncrasies. Towns wishing to reinvigorate their centres will need genuinely distinctive reasons to engender loyalty and preference. Architecture can play its part in creating a particular sense of place - not just for one individual flagship scheme, but across much wider areas to build a more recognisable character that people can enjoy and share.

The high street, the scene of homogeneity and decline, can fight back to become again a place where people meet, share, and enjoy experiences they can't get elsewhere. Mary Portas, a firm believer in the revival of the British High Street, visualises high streets as ‘lively, dynamic, exciting and social places that give a sense of belonging and trust to a community’. [3] Other sources reimagine the high street as offering ‘a rich mix of activities including working, sharing, exchanging, playing and learning new skills’. [4] As entrepreneurs have the chance to fill in the vacuum left as larger chains go into administration, they need to ensure that they work hard to create places with genuine points of interest and distinct identities.

Interestingly the physical future success of the high street may draw upon people's relationship with the virtual world. E-commerce specialist, Pete Doyle, suggests that the future of the web is local, [5] used to attract people to the high street. Websites like OpenHighStreet and MyHighSt. are using the virtual space to promote the real place, whilst other stores are adopting a ‘click and collect’ function, uniting online and in-store retail. YourStreet Gift Card is also attempting to create a joint identity amongst independent stores. [6]

Through its potential to reinvent and express genuine individual character, the high street has the opportunity to reaffirm the role that place can play in peoples' sense of identity, and improve social cohesion and enjoyment. In a world where brands are cloned everywhere, Apple's former slogan of "Think Different" is pertinent.

Update: Recent reports indicate that high streets can expect to have more life breathed back into them due to a movement between online retail and bricks and mortar stores; from ‘clicks to bricks’. Recognising the value of the physical experience and creating deep, on-going customer relationships, brands are seeking a return to a more hands-on service experience, from pop-up stores to full-time outlets. [7]


Authors: Nick Jones and Sarah Moor

[1] Giddens, A. (1998) Conversations with Anthony Giddens: Making Sense of Modernity, California: Standard University Press.
[2] Proshansky, H. M., Fabian, A. K., Kaminoff, R. (1983) 'Place - Identity: Physical World socialization of the self', Journal of Environmental Psychology, vol. 3
[3] Mary Portas, ‘Mary Portas: my vision for Britain's high streets’
[4] Reimagine your Highstreet
[5] Peter Stanford, ‘Reinventing the high street: shops must embrace the internet’
[6] Joanne O'Connell, ‘How independent retailers are battling to save Britain's high streets’
[7] Lindsay Baker,