UKAA & Royal College of Arts Project – Reimagine The high Street Project

The Urban Village High Street – repurposing the high street as retail and residential space.

UKAA and the RCA Service Design Course are partnering on a project to reimagine the high street. The 2-year master’s course in Service Design is pioneering in the development of service design which combines a human centred approach, system thinking and design methods, to create new services and customer experiences. Since the course started 8 years ago, students have gone onto to work in technology, industry, the public sector and government.

Earlier this year the RCA partnered with UKAA on a project to establish the idea of “Build To Rent” as a viable and sustainable alternative to house ownership and a series of both radical and pragmatic projects came out of the collaboration.

We will be launching a 3-month project with second year students to reimagine the high street. The RCA is partnering with several organisations and experts on this topic including Camden Council on the recovery for their high street business including greater use of digital and delivery mechanisms and with Aalto University in Helsinki, whose campus is integrated in the local city community. We are also discussing partners involved in other areas such as gig economy delivery workers.

UKAA members and others have identified opportunities for developing residential homes in what have previously been exclusively retail occupied high streets – many of which are likely to disappear post Covid.

Approach and opportunity

For this year, the RCA students will be working across a series of “Studios”, each of which have a number of partners who are looking for solutions to the high street renewal and can provide opportunities to research each theme, provide advice and information and engage with students across the project.

We are now looking for UKAA member organisations or individuals who would like to support the students in their projects as they develop new concepts and ideas.

The students work across a design process which we describe as a “double diamond”. The process starts with Discovery – broad research before identifying issues and opportunities to be developed as a design project. This first stage is where we would like partners to be available to describe the opportunities and issues around transformation on the high street.

The students will then focus to Define the area of interest and arrive at a specific topic for creative development. The students then form, prototype and validate their ideas before presentations in early December and a public exhibition (on-line this year) at the end of January.


The Challenge

Post Covid, it is expected that there will be an acceleration of a long-term trend in the decline of retail businesses in high streets. In many urban areas, there have already been conversions of retail properties into residential homes. These are often crude and poorly designed and do little to build communities.

The opportunity is to think afresh. How can new spaces be utilized to create village high streets in urban areas that sustain retail and enhance and build sustainable, interacting and popular communities? How do we make the High Street a great place to live?

The challenge covers human, system and design issues: how can business survive and thrive, what are the barriers around transformation of existing retail sites and how can we design services and places that interact, are family friendly and create new templates for vibrant, attractive and successful high streets.

This is the time to not just think big but show big – create visions that are pragmatic and effective to influence the stakeholders and partners wo could rebuild and revitalise our high streets.


Target customers and stakeholders

Understanding who might wish to live in a new high street will be one of the outcomes of the projects. Students will survey data, interview and explore with a variety of people the needs of future residents and the businesses and other organisations who might populate the high street of the future.

From Generation Rent Millennials to single parent families, older residents and combined business and residential users, the project will deliver insight and information from the research phase.

Businesses: from the corner shop to high street chains via charity shops and banks, the high street is a source of livelihoods that has been deeply impacted by the rise of digital commerce and now the limitations of physical space and interaction due to Covid. Safety, new digital based commerce, and the social impact of decline will drive new ideas to build resilience and social cohesion back to the high street.

Architects: designing for communities and new opportunities to create blended residential and retail spaces that enable a communal approach reflecting lifestyle choices and social and cultural interactions for young and old.

Investors: there are new opportunities for investors to deliver a new model of rental living. Mixed business models of residential and business incomes with added quality of life and business sustainability away from dependency on daily office workers can be explored.

Planners: how can planning decisions support new models of high street usage? What are the barriers and the opportunities for new village high streets.


Solutions are needed now, and students will explore the current issues of business. Projects can work within a 1-3-year time vision and increasingly students have looked further ahead to 5-10-year speculative visions of the future possible.


High Streets are subject to planning regulations, place shaping strategies, local transportation, service provision and local culture and community. UKAA will work closely with the project and will link to architects and experts working in this field to advise and support the research and ideas as they develop.


New visions of the high street bult on research exploration and creative concepts to form new visions of high street communities to influence and inspire future residents, businesses, planners, investors and politicians.

Please get in touch with us if you would like to be part of this project.