With Thame being the new home of edge, we wondered: What makes it such a vibrant and thriving place?
Second only to Liverpool Waterfront, Thame High Street in Oxfordshire triumphed over the likes of the Peak District, Bath, Bristol, Letchworth Garden City and Saltaire to be voted the second-best place in the UK. The 2015 competition organised by the RTPI, showcased and celebrated the diverse places that planners and the planning system have created, protected and enhanced for local communities.
Five years on, we look at why Thame High Street sets an Oxfordshire precedent as a prosperous market town and a fantastic place to live and grow a new business – as edge Urban Design makes Thame High Street its new home.
The number of empty shops in UK high streets is now at its highest level since 2015, with a national vacancy rate of 10.3% according to the British Retail Consortium, meaning that 1 in 10 of our high street shops is now empty. Whilst we all have a responsibility to overcome this statistic through strategic urban planning and on-the-ground incentives, in Thame, it’s a different story. There are currently no empty retail units and the High Street is thriving.
What makes Thame so unique?
1. Successful strategic Town Planning
Thame established one of the UK’s first Neighbourhood Plans in November 2012 and has since received numerous awards including the RTPI “Award for Planning Excellence 2013” and the RTPI “South East Planning Award 2013”.
More than 800 residents attended and engaged with the public consultations for the development of the Thame Neighbourhood Plan, resulting in a document which reflects the views of residents, business owners and stakeholders in the town and surrounding area.
Thame isn’t a settlement that is standing still, with a local group currently establishing the Thame Green Living Plan. The first of its kind, the Green Living Plan is being created to protect and improve the long-term health and vitality of the environment, creating a bridge between Thame’s urban centre and its abundant natural landscape.
By taking a proactive approach to strategic town planning, the town is celebrating and protecting its rich heritage through conservation while encouraging and inspiring forward-thinking innovation.
2. A strong identity as a market town
Thame was granted a Market Charter in 1215, with the market activities still shaping the High Street over 800 years later. The central core of the High Street creates a spacious and open public space, capable of accommodating market stalls, livestock enclosures and the turning of carriages which also maintains a through-flow of movement. A weekly Tuesday market is still held in the widest part of the High Street and has consequently led to the town receiving a grand commendation from the Association of Market Towns.
A recreational route connects Thame to nearby settlements such as Long Crendon and Chearsley, while a network of Public Rights of Way allows surrounding hamlets and villages to access Thame by foot and bike. The Phoenix Trail, largely following a disused railway line, offers magnificent views on the nearby Chiltern Hills and is the perfect place for a relaxed bike ride or walk.
An extensive bus network provides Thame with local links to neighbouring communities as well as larger settlements such as Aylesbury, Oxford, and High Wycombe. Upon the completion of both the M40 in 1990 and the Haddenham and Thame Parkway Station in 1987, Thame also benefits from national connections with direct services to Oxford, Birmingham, London Marylebone and beyond.
4. Diversity of retail
An independent butcher, artisan chocolate shop, local bakers, cafés or Atalay’s award-winning kebab are all available from Thame’s High Street. These businesses lie among national corporations offering a diverse range of goods from food to clothing, home and hobbies, and beauty and wellness. Such retail diversity not only attracts a variety of customers, but also strengthens Thames’ adaptability for any potential future changes in demand.
In the current COVID-19 pandemic, many of our independent retailers are adapting to offer home deliveries.
5. Vibrant public space
Despite the undoubted importance of buildings and shops, Thame’s high street atmosphere is formed primarily in the open spaces in between the buildings. Public space remains open at all times and therefore needs to offer a great variety of activities and equipment for different age groups to engage with at different times.
In Thame, the High Street comes to life early in the morning as the first bus takes people to work and school and brings others from surrounding villages. Throughout the day, Thame’s businesses actively engage with public space. The smell of freshly baked bread or coffee, street furniture ranging from pots with plants and coffee tables to stands with goods exhibited outside of the shops, all of which help to lure potential customers or simply make for a stroll.
There are benches to sit and read, trees offering pleasant shade in summer and the war memorial open space in which to relax. Furthermore, Tuesday’s market or the everyday evening pop-up food stands help to turn the high street from a place to go through into a place to stay and engage with.
The maintenance of Thame’s historical structure has resulted in well-defined streets bordered by overlooking buildings, accommodating retail on the ground floor and residential units on the upper. Only a handful of relatively lively alleyways complement such distinct street frontage, resulting in the overall safety for all as the communities’ eyes act as ‘the natural proprietors of the street’ (Jane Jacobs, 1961).
Parking opportunities across the town are diverse – from the Upper High Street Car Park which offers three hours free of charge to the Cattle Market Car Park permitting up to eight hours of parking for a total cost of £2.40. There are also seven sets of bike racks located around the town centre, promoting active transport and thereby reducing traffic congestion to mitigate pollution along the High Street.
The span of the High Street not only accommodates weekly markets, but it also provides opportunities for Thame to host events throughout the year such as fairs, music festivals, or the Christmas light turn on. Flexible and adaptable spaces help to bring the surrounding communities together whilst encouraging spontaneity.
9. High-quality Materials
Recent housing developments are using high-quality materials, looking to maintain the character and architectural charm of Thame’s High Street. Sections of cobbled streets reveal the tale of Thame’s history and one pub even contains the old well, protected by glass, in the men’s toilet.
10. Green Infrastructure
Set within the countryside, Thame benefits from an abundance of green open space, both within the settlement itself and in its surroundings. Places like the Chinnor Rugby Club, the Elms Park or the St Mary’s Church meadows can be used for walking, playing and relaxing in the outdoors.
Learning from Thame, we have concluded that to fabricate a thriving High Street, it is merely a matter of adding A+B+C+D to result in E, because ‘High Streets are about so much more than shopping’ (The Portas Review, 2011). We have developed an equation which we believe can formulate the backbone of a prosperous and healthy high street:
A dventurous – Is the High Street exciting, dynamic, and worth exploring?
B espoke – Does the High Street have a distinctive structure and celebrated vernacular architecture?
C onnected – Can the High Street be easily accessed both locally and nationally by everyone?
D iversified – Is the High Street varied and unique both the buildings and the spaces between them?