Can heritage towns, cities and high streets modernise without losing their cultural identity?

By March 31, 2021 April 14th, 2021 Blog, Technology and Innovation, Town Centres

“Town centres and high streets are at a critical point. They need to reinforce and redefine their role and function at the centre of community activities in response to these economic and social shifts… The importance of history, heritage, and architecture is a unique selling point to many places. They need to be celebrated and protected whilst embracing modernity.” 

Toyubur Rahman, FIPM,

Whilst carrying research for this blog I came across this description of a city centre heritage area,  “Cool, funky and beautiful, as well as dusty and noisy, … varied, dynamic and a colourful inner-city area”. The description is of Digbeth on the south east edge of Birmingham’s City Centre in a recent case study by Historic England. It’s a stone’s throw from the shiny, glass fronted, highly-polished stainless steel and relatively new Bullring  Shopping centre – a great cathedral-like example of the era of the retail-led regeneration concept that dominated and transformed many of the town and city centres at the time.

Growing up in Birmingham in the late 80s, 90s and 2000s, Digbeth was never thought of as cool, funky or beautiful. A place generally to be avoided – full of old factories, warehouses, greasy spoons and working men’s pubs.  However, you had to travel through this area when walking or getting the bus into town. I do remember some of the night clubs such as The Institute (or “Insti” as we used to call it in the early 1990s) which started life as Carrs Lane Congregational church, served as a civic building and several night club incarnations to  now become the O2 Institute [1].

Digbeth contains Birmingham’s oldest building, The Old Crown, on Digbeth High Street. It was built in the late 15th century as the guildhall and school of the Guild of St John the Baptist of Deritend. There are also the large industrial complexes of household names such as Typhoo tea and Bird’s custard factory. The urban landscape is strikingly multi-layered, with canals crossing the River Rea and viaducts looming over roads. Former industrial buildings have been creatively repurposed or transformed into colourful canvases by graffiti and street artists. [2]

The case study continues, “The area is greatly loved by many, who are attracted by its diverse character”, and now looking through the pictures and reading about the history of the area and the prominent buildings, I suddenly felt a pang of nostalgia, of pride and somehow an emotional connection to this place. I can’t quite describe why but I know it’s there.

This is sometimes known as The Place Attachment concept “the development of an affective bond or link between people or individuals and specific places”. Manifested in emotions, knowledge, beliefs, behaviours and actions. It develops when “a place is well-identified and felt significant by the users and able to fulfil their functional needs”. So ‘place’ is a psychological as well as physical concept. The physical form, activity and meaning are mixed together to form the “sense of place”. Places cannot be separated from the people who make them and invest meaning into them. Places are interpreted, narrated, perceived, felt, understood, and imagined[3]. It is apparent that without addressing the significance of the people’s psychological connection, their emotions, feelings, memories with places, any form of re-invention or re-purposing could well be a missed opportunity.

Places like Digbeth are not alone in this regard, many of us have a relationship with historic places, that evoke emotions and provide identity. They are part of our evolving cultural heritage and they reflect the nature and history of the communities that created them. They add distinctiveness, meaning and quality to the places in which we live, providing a sense of continuity and a source of identity. Historic places are also social and economic assets. Knowing accurately and objectively where their historic significance lies helps us determine how they can be adapted without losing what makes them special[4].  

Recently speaking with Owain Lloyd-James Head of Places Strategy at Historic England, he stressed that “Change is inevitable – we need to manage the process of change and look at these places in imaginative ways and new ways to use them – adaptive re-use or Constructive Conservation. A broader term referring to a positive and collaborative approach to conservation that focuses on actively managing change. The aim is to recognise and reinforce the historic significance of places, towns, cities, high streets while accommodating the changes necessary to ensure their continued use and enjoyment [5]. 

The importance of heritage, cultural identity is a clear differentiator and a unique selling point. We need to celebrate and protect traditional aspects of town/city centres and high streets whilst embracing modernity and promote new experiences.

What is clear, towns, cities and high streets have been undergoing a significant structural shift for over a decade and now at pace. What our town/ city centres and high street transition into remains to be seen. However, for some the answers may well come from the past rather than the future.

As a result, town centres and high streets are at a critical juncture. They need to reinforce and redefine their role and function at the centre of community activities in response to these economic and social shifts. These challenges have a particular resonance for historic town centres and high streets. The sustained and successful stewardship of their buildings, streets and spaces is intertwined with the health of the future economy[6].

Owain describes that the “High street has to adapt to remain relevant and people need to use them to experience them.  Heritage and history of a place is one of the elements that can differentiate a high street and provide that unique selling point.  Once you peel back the Formica and neon signs to reveal the beautiful architecture of the individual buildings.  This can push back against the clone town and encourage a new audience to visit and open up to new investors.” It helps to discover the true grit and personality that make up the character and identity of a town. It adds personal history to the bricks and mortar and increases wellbeing.

A really good example of this can be found in The Burges in Coventry, a demonstrator ‘High Street Heritage Action Zone project’.

The Burges represents a surviving section of one of the historic routes into the city, and now provides one of the main gateways into the commercial heart of the city from the north. With adjoining Hales Street, it forms a small conservation area, focused on the eastern side of The Burges, which is lined with an assortment of shop fronts mostly dating from the 20th century. Behind these facades however the buildings range in date from the 18th to 19th centuries, and some have earlier origins with 17th-century timber-framed sections visible from Palmer Lane to the rear.

Research into individual buildings has also allowed the creation of a timeline of the owners and occupants of each property on the street – providing an insight into the shops and trades that characterised Coventry in the 19th and early 20th centuries, including tailors, drapers, butchers, jewellers and watchmakers.

This work has provided a valuable tool to engage with present day business. For example, the tenants of 23 The Burges, now operating as Godiva Tailors, were thrilled to learn that their shop had in fact been a tailors in the late 19th century – providing an important connection between the shop as it is today and its occupants 150 years ago[7].

Through the Heritage Action Zone programme, 68 high streets have been offered funding to give them a new lease of life, to develop and deliver schemes that will transform and restore disused and dilapidated buildings into new homes, shops, workplaces and community spaces, restoring local historic character and improving public realm. Places like Bedford, Great Yarmouth, Chatham, Hastings, Ramsgate, Grantham, Hinckley, Leominster, Lincoln, North Shields, Skipton, Sowerby Bridge, Chester, Fleetwood, Ormskirk, Stalybridge, Midsomer Norton, Tewkesbury, Weston-super-Mare and many more will be working hard to re-discover, re-connect  and make the most of the heritage that lies in their places. [8]

One of the main outcomes of the High Street HAZs is how people perceive their high street. The cultural programme is a significant part of the HAZ programme, the aims of which are to increase economic and social activity, improve the historic fabric of the high street, change people perceptions and bring people back.

Owain explains “The High Streets HAZ programme represents significant levels of investment into England’s built heritage. It is important that the social and cultural impact of that investment is understood and measured.. An evaluation framework has been devised to measure  footfall, number of buildings regenerated, jobs generated and floor space brought back into use. 

Owain continues “Establishing ownership of the high street and individual buildings is one of the biggest issues when it comes to repurposing and re-inventing high streets. There are swathes owned by pension funds and one the things they are not allowed to do is invest in residential property mainly because it can lead to inflationary property prices. However, there is a proactive need for place based investment and the Government is investing a significant amount of money;  the High Streets HAZ programme represents the biggest ever single investment by the Government in the UK’s built heritage”.  Furthermore, significant levels of alternative sources of funding will also be invested in the heritage high streets.

Noggin is working with some High Street Heritage Action Zones, such as Newport, Isle of Wight Council. The Noggin Property App will be used to create a web-based property register adopted to support the development of the historical capital – the inland town of Newport. The initial aim of the project will be to create and maintain a database of commercial properties within the High Street Heritage Action Zone and use it to identify target buildings for interventions.

It’s great to see so many places trying to rediscover the heritage, history and stories of their places. These places are being protected and celebrated. However, it is clear that these towns, cities and high streets cannot stand still to be conserved like museum exhibits. They have to embrace the future, blending tradition with modernity that create the places of the future. Places where people want to be, to invest time, emotions and make memories – that’s what makes a great place.

You can find out more about High Street Heritage Action Zones and where they are, at https://historicengland.org.uk/services-skills/heritage-action-zones/regenerating-historic-high-streets/

About the author, Toyubur Rahman FIPM, Ethos Partner, Noggin 

Toyubur is a passionate professional and an industry expert in Place Management, urban regeneration, town planning, partnership development, business improvement districts and evening economy; with a proven track record of successfully implementing projects to improve town centres. He is currently practicing Economic Development, Growth and Place in Chichester and was recently appointed to the High Street Task Force as expert advisor and a Fellow of the Institute of Place Management.

For more information on the Noggin Hub and Property App please visit https://www.nogginhub.com/


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digbeth_Institute

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[2]Digbeth Story Map Tour https://englishheritage.maps.arcgis.com/apps/MapTour/index.html?appid=e4093d126e55499f86b143c423c98a9d

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[3] The Notion of Place, Place Meaning and Identity in Urban Regeneration Norsidah Ujangᵃ and Khalilah Zakariya, Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences 170 ( 2015 ) 709 – 717

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[4] Constructive Conservation in Practice,  Historic England, 2008

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[5] Constructive Conservation in Practice,  Historic England, 2008

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[6]https://historicengland.org.uk/advice/planning/historic-towns-and-high-streets/

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[7]https://historicengland.org.uk/whats-new/research/back-issues/researching-high-street-heritage-action-zones/https://www.birminghammail.co.uk/news/midlands-news/gallery/changing-face-digbeth-over-60-18148207

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[8] The High Streets Heritage Action Zone initiative is funded with £92 million from Government departments. As well as a further £3 million will be provided by the National Lottery Heritage Fund to support a cultural programme. https://historicengland.org.uk/services-skills/heritage-action-zones/regenerating-historic-high-streets/