A life enhancing environment will help our high streets thrive, grow and develop…

Cllr Brian Pope is Alliance Party Group Leader on Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council.

Our hard-pressed retail sector has suffered sizable losses during the pandemic and therefore it is hoped that the new High Street voucher scheme will boost local commerce and give people some much needed retail therapy.

It will provide individual shoppers with £100 to spend on our high streets rather than online, and comprises a significant cash injection into our local high streets.

Whilst the new NI High Street voucher scheme will bring a welcome boost to our local traders, I would argue that we also need long-term sustainable solutions for our urban spaces.

Our town centres and High Streets face multiple pressures including the growth of online shopping and a shift in shopping patterns.

The new High Street Task Force at Stormont, set up to try and address these systemic challenges, will be receiving many ideas and views from across the sector and will be feeling the pressure to produce early results.

I believe these deliberations should include a more focused assessment of the positive impact that our natural environment can have on the physical character of our urban places. For instance, encouraging more walking in our urban areas can have the twin benefits of increased social activity and providing an economic stimulus.

Furthermore, in his ground-breaking book ‘In Praise of Walking’, Shane O’Mara champions the benefits of walking to both our physical and mental health.

Walking can be an enjoyable experience whether in the country or in urban areas. It enhances our mood and improves our well-being, but we should also understand this impact in the context of our towns and city streets.

Interestingly, Shane O’Mara’s advice for urban designers is that our urban places should be ‘easy (to walk); accessible (to all); safe (for everyone); and enjoyable (for all).’ He also refers to the importance of natural desire lines in our towns and city streets, and the clear link with social activity and economic activity.

Some of these descriptions could equally be applied to our parklands and woodland walks. Likewise, the role and success of our fantastic urban and city parks is undisputed but there is now an increased need for connectivity to our shopping and hospitality areas. This is needed to deliver the type of life enhancing environment that will help our high streets thrive, grow and develop.

Introducing innovative green solutions is on the rise. For example, in partnership, Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council is piloting a new community garden project which uses the ‘Green Gym’ approach to promote healthier lifestyle choices, improve mental and physical health and increase social inclusion.

Maybe we should hold an urban design competition every two years in Northern Ireland. This would enable all our talented urban designers and architects to present their most imaginative and creative proposals to green our towns.

There is no doubt that any solution will also require the universal support of both our local authorities and the executive departments, especially when these departments still have control over our urban roads.

This is an important point because some urban landscape decisions can be made on the long-term cost of maintaining surfacing and finishes. Departmental budgets are tight, and assessors will take account of whole life costs but will this include the benefits and potential savings of improved physical and mental health, and the boost to our local economy?

This is not to mention the benefits helping in the significant challenges brought by climate change.

So, whatever we do, we shouldn’t underestimate the force of nature.