'Let’s try something different for the town centre. Fewer places for profit and more places for people'

Stephen Le Quesne

By Stephen Le Quesne

I TRY to avoid the town centre at the best of times and at the worst of times. It does not really appeal to me on a personal or professional level – too much concrete, not enough green space, too little space for bicycles. It all feels a little claustrophobic, a little mundane and, a little flat with no shops that pique my interest.

It does not help that I am not a consumerist and I only buy when there is a desperate need (I have learnt that you can only have so many holes in your trainers). We have a complete lack of diversity when it comes to the shopping experience as I am looking for sustainable, recycled and environmentally friendly goods when I need to replace something.

I do not think I am alone in thinking this and with the news coming out about the number of empty shops that are now within the high street and calls to fill them, it feels that we are trying to flog a dead horse or trying the exact same approach and expecting different results.

Are we ignoring the reasons why these shops and businesses closed with the buildings left empty? If there is a “plague” of empty shops at the north end of Queen Street, then there must be deep, underlying issues as to why. Surely, you don’t keep trying to do the same when it only works in the short term. Or not at all. In this case it is to keep trying to fill the empty shops.

So, why not try something different? Rather than try to encourage big, capitalist companies to rent and use these spaces, which in my opinion adds to the feeling of “soullessness” within town, let’s step back, ask individuals what they would like, include the local community and aim for something different – more of a circular economy and social cohesion approach.

If the plan is to “revitalise town”, then here are a few ideas, which would pique my interest and also make the high street feel more personal, more unique.

How about a place for all our nature organisations to communicate and sell some of their produce? A communal shop for the National Trust and Trees for Life? Or maybe a place for smallholders and organic farmers to sell and promote their produce? Basically, an extension of the Market, with assistance for both ideas with rent and costs. I get the feeling that the grip of landlords needs to be loosened for the greater good.

I would absolutely love an independent bookstore and coffee shop, a place where we are able to buy or rent a book and where customers are be encouraged to stay and read within the shop, a communal place to meet people and which promotes different cultures and the arts. I really like Curiosity Coffee Shop that is currently opposite Sand Street, so maybe get them involved? We need to stop looking at these spaces within the high street and town centre as a place for profit and treat them more like places for people.

Also, we need somewhere for teenagers to go, to socialise, to expand and nurture their social connections and to help find their way. Is there anywhere for secondary school children to go without being stigmatised or moved on elsewhere?

It’s more than likely this idea would get kickback about the potential for “trouble” and “anti-social” behaviour and yes, there are some teenagers and young adults who are disillusioned and may cause “trouble”, but how is ignoring this issue and pretending like it’s not there, going to help solve it? It does not.

And then there is the subject of green spaces and infrastructure, which I have written about on more than occasion. We know the wellbeing and physical exercise benefits, but also – as explored a couple of weeks ago – the benefits of social cohesion and bringing people together. Much of the angst and anger we are seeing throughout society is due to a grand disillusionment of individuals not feeling wanted nor like they have found where they belong.

Let’s combat this and provide all corners of society with places and experiences that enable potential new friendships and the discovery of new hobbies. Real-life dopamine rather than the cheap dopamine we are being fed by social media and the internet.

It seems obvious that the days of the high street being the one-stop place for shopping and buying items for everyday life has gone. This model is slowly going extinct and yet we seem nervous or oblivious to the potential that this brings.

Let’s bring some life back into St Helier and consign the idea of the traditional high street to the past.

  • Stephen Le Quesne is a naturalist, conservationist, forest school leader and nature connection advocate.

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