We are living in the digital era, where it’s possible to connect with friends on the opposite side of the world almost instantaneously thanks to modern technology. So why do so many of us feel disconnected, lonely, and left out? It seems that even as it becomes easier and easier to connect with people over the phone or online, it’s becoming harder and harder to get to know our neighbours, feel like part of a thriving local community, and find time to get together with people in person.
It’s partly because we’re all so busy, working longer hours and squeezing in the school run, the gym, and other ‘must-dos’ into our time outside of work instead of taking time to socialize. It’s also because we’re increasingly living in bigger cities, and often commuting long distances to work each day. The ‘village’ that helped our parents or grandparents feel connected to where they lived doesn’t exist for many of us anymore. We might not work in the same town, shop at the same grocery store, see the same doctor, or even send our kids to the same school as our next-door neighbours.
Why is this a problem? Because disconnected communities often end up at odds (think of the endless squabbling over Brexit!), while people who feel disconnected are more at risk of depression and anxiety – Johann Hari’s mega-bestselling book on depression was titled ‘Lost Connections’ for this reason.
So what’s the prescription for more and better connections in this modern era? Everyone in the neighbourhood benefits from a lively, thriving local high street – a hub for people to do their shopping, get together to socialise, and have those chance run-ins with friends and neighbours that help keep our real-life connections alive. When the high street offers the right mix of products, services and social environments for people to do what they do best – connect – it contributes to a stronger, healthier, and happier society.
The high street is where a frazzled new mother can park her pram and share a break (and get some good advice) from an old friend who has ‘been there, done that’. It’s where the older members of our community, who often live alone, can go knowing they’ll always find a friendly face behind the counter of their local stores willing to have a chat. It’s also where the most disadvantaged and excluded people in our neighbourhoods can feel like a welcome part of a community.
When we talk about revitalising the high street, we’re not just talking about having nice shops selling pretty things – we’re talking about bringing ‘the village’ back to urban life, creating hubs to support local communities and opportunities for locals to engage with their high street and help create its unique character. It may take time and hard work to restore a dated or neglected high street to its proper role in the centre of the community, but with positivity, it can become a reality – and the work will be worth the climb.
As for the digital age? A savvy high street knows how to use the internet to promote special events, sales, outdoor concerts, what’s new in stores, and much more – and use that online connection to help bring back real-life, local connections for the community it serves.