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Monday Nov 19, 2012

'High Street' zone adds value and colour to suburban life

In the UK, 92 percent of all retail businesses are independent. The figure for South Africa might be different, but it is clear that micro enterprises and family businesses not only provide jobs directly, but create opportunities for designers and producers who often are locked out of the buying chain of large enterprises.

Independents are not only important for creating jobs, they are also good for creating more varied and attractive neighbourhoods. Large chain stores require very specific designs for their buildings, and lots of parking, making them less suitable for high streets or centres that provide a range of local services. Independent businesses that are attuned to local markets, combined with social and community uses, will draw people in, reducing the need for residents to travel to larger centres.

"Keeping life local" is an aim of London's Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Cape Town doesn't have the equivalent of boroughs, with the resources and commitment to supporting local business that that implies. If we did, we too could develop strategies such as a borough "loyalty card" to support small retailers.

But there is nothing stopping retailers from banding together with strategies of their own, or for the city to develop a metropolitan-wide strategy to support independent retailers.

As it is now, they are left high and dry, often barely tolerated or even seen as a nuisance.

One of the reasons that small operators tend to flout laws and regulations is that their businesses are not viable if they keep to the rules. To save money, taxi owners avoid paying income tax, don't insure their vehicles, demand too much of their drivers and don't maintain their vehicles to safe standards. Then they claim they are being victimised if traffic police impound their vehicles. Which is not surprising when enforcement appears to be random. Street traders face similar challenges and respond in similar ways.

The solution is to develop regulations that fit a viable business model, reduce red tape, provide business support and enforce rules consistently. And with a healthier business environment, one would expect less conflict between "formal" and "informal" businesses, or between local and immigrant owners. There might also be less temptation to sell stolen or knock-off goods.

The government tries to provide lowincome housing, but what is stopping us from providing "housing" for businesses that is the low-cost version of a shopping mall or a High Street?

We could find ways to encourage certain streets to be lined with two or three storey low-cost buildings for trade on the ground floor and flats above. These could be on routes to stations, where there is a natural flow of pedestrians, and combined with strategies used by the Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrading programme in Khayelitsha.

Many streets that have survived countless economic downturns, and are able to reinvent themselves over the decades, are lined with three-storey buildings. Lower Main Road in Observatory and Long Street in the CBD are prime examples. There's no guarantee of success, but it's a more flexible model than tall buildings or shopping malls that are built for a single purpose and struggle to adapt to changing needs.

We could go further in discouraging landlords from leaving properties empty and developing incentives for them to accommodate small-scale entrepreneurs.

Developing a nighttime economy is another way to keep life local and provide more attractions within neighbourhoods.

Many Cape Town neighbourhoods have never had high streets, and so we need to define what form they should take. Why not hold a competition for communities to develop creative ideas, and take the best of these and fund their development into practical plans?

The city could hold workshops and develop toolkits to help community groups understand the planning process, and disseminate the results so that other groups could learn from what was developed through this process. There could be a team of city officials championing the development of local versions of vibrant high streets - not bureaucrats issuing permits, but visionaries geared to developing concepts and helping entrepreneurs navigate the city's regulations.

Successful high streets survive by being unique destinations, not by following prescribed models. Our challenge is to identify unique features of our neighbourhoods, and to support independents in developing the kinds of business that create places of pride and dignity.

Rory Williams
Man About Town
Cape Times

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