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In focus

Does the death of the high street matter – if we are in a new era of the ‘Playground City’?

There is plenty of handwringing over the retail apocalypse and the work from home boom turning our urban centres into ghost towns – but what if these spaces are just quietly transforming into something more vibrant and exciting, asks Katie Rosseinsky?

Wednesday 18 October 2023 06:30 BST
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While central London will always be a magnet for visitors, consumers, says a senior lecturer in architecture and urbanism, are now ‘looking to their town and city centres not for buying stuff but in terms of having experiences’
While central London will always be a magnet for visitors, consumers, says a senior lecturer in architecture and urbanism, are now ‘looking to their town and city centres not for buying stuff but in terms of having experiences’ (iStock / Getty)

Whenever my parents needed to pacify three fractious girls under the age of seven, they only had to take us on a trip to Woolworths. The crowning glory of our high street had something to distract each one of us. A bin full of S Club 7 and Gareth Gates singles for me. Outlandish dressing up outfits for my middle sister. Pick ’n’ mix for us both. A wonderland of noisy, shiny toys for the baby.

By the time Woolies went into administration almost a decade later, we felt a pang of nostalgia, but we’d largely outgrown it. Now allowed to venture further afield, I was in the throes of my teenage Topshop years. The closest branch was a four-storey colossus that dominated the main shopping street; I’d spend entire Saturday afternoons trying on different outfits (and different identities), scouring the rails for the Kate Moss-designed dresses that seemed like a passport to a cooler world.

The high street felt like an exciting place. But Woolies was just the first domino to fall in the retail apocalypse. The Topshop in the centre of Liverpool currently stands empty; instead, I can flick through its latest collections on the Asos app, or attempt to track down older pieces second-hand on Vinted. I was hooked on online shopping before the pandemic, of course, but lockdown only intensified the habit. Topshop is far from the only former high street stalwart to have disappeared. The most recent casualty is Wilko, once my go-to for bargain homeware slash general tat (one friend was so distraught at the news of its demise that she visited her local store to “say her goodbyes”).

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