The South Lanes Project — a model for social innovation, town centre regeneration & retail transformation

Neil Gibb
Neil Gibb
Jan 8 · 14 min read

You cannot solve a problem using the thinking that created it — this is where so many attempts to transform cities, town centres and high streets are going wrong.

The world is changing, fast. New technology, changing tastes and values, concerns about climate change and how society is working. We hear about it on the news every day, but we see it most noticeably locally in our town centres. Colchester, like every other town in the UK, is being impacted by what the newspapers call ‘the crisis on the high street’.

The South Lanes Project was instigated in March 2019 to tackle this very issue using a novel community-led approach — a model we believe could be the means to transform not just our towns but our society.

Colchester is an ideal ‘sandbox’ — a place to experiment — as it is in many ways ‘typical’, containing and representing a lot of the socio-economic opportunities and challenges we see in bigger and smaller towns and cities across UK.


To transform the south side of Colchester in Essex into a thriving, vibrant, prosperous, social centre and destination — a diverse community of shops, businesses, social enterprises, coffee shops, eating places, arts, and participatory experiences that draws people from far and wide.

For this to have a ‘halo effect’ on the rest of the town, and act as a model for the transformation of other town centres in the 21st century.

Where are the South Lanes?

Not surprisingly, The South Lanes run across the south side of Colchester town centre. The South Lanes Project though is about much more than a group of streets.

Geographically the South Lanes run from Queen Street to Lexden Road — incorporating Crouch Street, Church Lane, Sir Isaacs Walk, Trinity Street, Scheregate Steps, Eld Lane and Short Wyre Street and connecting with the two ‘creative quarters’ of the town — the existing creative area on the west of the town that includes The Arts Centre and Mercury Theatre, and the new creative area on the east side that includes Firstsite and The Curzon Cinema. This creates an artery through a town that is currently a series of disconnected areas. Over time we see it expanding out to include a lot of the other small streets in the area.

We looked at how other place-making projects had worked — Camden Market, Brighton Lanes, Shoreditch — and realised what you need to do is start small and work out. So our initial focus was on Eld Lane, Sir Isaacs, and Trinity Street.

The South Lanes is as much about an attitude as a geography and we found many businesses and venues getting involved who weren’t on the actual South Lanes strip. This we see as key to its success — the South Lanes is about the independent spirit of the town, not just a group of streets and shops.

This is about the people versus decline

Over the last thirty years a lot of our city and town centres have increasingly become identical strips of the same retailers and franchises, flatpacked businesses devoid of local character and nuance.

This model is now failing, a combination of dramatically changing social sentiment and the ubiquity of products, a trend that is increasingly being driven by the Internet. Whereas once you might go into your local town to hunt for a product, or have to go to a larger city, now most products are easily accessible to all — often cheaper online.

What many people are looking for in our towns and cities is very different from where many big businesses and business-led initiatives think from. They are looking for human experiences, social connection, people and things they identify with and can get involved in; things that feels real, authentic and unique.

What we realised was that Colchester’s greatest asset is the network of small streets and lanes that contain a hive of small businesses, community projects and unique one-off cafes and independent shops. Individually each enterprise might be small, but collectively they offer something totally unique — experiences you can’t find in other towns nearby and certainly can’t get on the Internet.

Most crucially we realised community regeneration is about people. Rather than a top-down planning exercise, The South Lanes Project is about bottom-up and grassroots engagement; harnessing and empowering the innate passion, creativity and energy of the community.

Making a place

The South Lanes Project is an exercise in what is known as ‘place making’.

South Lanes logo for shops and street signage — developed by Simon Wright

In the age of globalisation and ecommerce simply having shops and chain stores is not enough. The same brands crop up in many towns — nearby Chelmsford, Braintree Freeport, Bluewater and Stratford all offer the usual array of chain stores and franchises. What is more you can now buy whatever you want on the Internet. Why even go into town?

What ‘place making’ is about is creating a sense of identity and destination that people are really drawn to — a rich and unique experience you can’t get anywhere else.

The 3 Cs of urban regeneration

In an age where everything is available at the click of a mouse, what we knew was we needed to focus on more than just shopping.

Our goal was to create a ‘vibe’, a place worth visiting, that was all about people and interesting and entertaining services, events and experiences.

We built our strategy on what we call ‘The 3Cs’ — community, creativity, and commerce — that work holistically together to create a rich unique, delightful, collective human experience.

Social data analysis allowed us to get insight into the changing social sentiment and demographics of the area and the wider environs, particularly providing us with insight into the concerns and needs of those who were not currently aware of, involved with, or fans of the area.

It’s all about people

The response to the project has been phenomenal. From small beginnings at a gathering in MetroBank’s community hall in March 2019 the project built and built.

We ran a series of ‘community hacks’, very different in approach to traditional focus groups. Rather than fact finding we ran participatory design workshops inviting and engaging as diverse groups as possible. Participants included local shop owners, social entrepreneurs, people from the arts community, council members and councillors, local tech companies, architects, property managers, musicians, artists, social care workers and local charities, and students, as well as people drawn into town from other areas who wanted to share their experience and learn.

Over the course of nine months we experimented with late night opening, worked with stores to look at how they could become more social and experiential, put on events, filled empty stores with art, encouraged street musicians and acts.

Agile Urban

Traditionally, urban planning and regeneration projects have taken a top-down or ‘waterfall’ approach to execution — gathering ideas, making plans, running projects in a top-town linear fashion.

When we looked at highly successful community-led social regeneration we realised it didn’t work like that. In fact that thinking was often part of the problem.

We flipped the model.

We took an agile approach to how we worked — experimenting, adapting, engaging and empowering local people to take initiative and action, learning by doing.

We have named this way of working ‘Agile Urban’ — a methodology we are now sharing and applying in other places.

The future of retailing

What the South Lanes Project had shown is that the function of our town centres and high streets is changing dramatically — and within that the kind of businesses that people want to visit.

The traditional thinking, language and measures of the retail industry are becoming obsolete.

The successful high street businesses of the 21st century need to think and operate from a totally different place — social, experiential, authentic, intimate, tribal, service based, entertaining. Connection is the currency of this new economy.

The South Lanes Project is a laboratory and an incubator for new ways of retailing and doing business in the 21st century — what we call ‘social retailing’.

Collective experiences

At the heart of the South Lanes Project are ‘South Lanes Socials’ — events and experiences by and for the people of Colchester.

Rather than just focusing on big dramatic events like festivals, we’ve focused on building a culture that has social events and experiences at its core.

One of the big successes of the South Lanes Social programme is ‘After Dark’.

After Dark tackles what is called the ‘twilight problem’ — how do you attract and keep people in town as the day ends, especially in the dark nights of winter?

After Dark started as a series of free films in cafes on the South Lanes and now has a cult movie night at the Arts Centre — one of many collaborations that have been vital to the project’s success.

The South Lanes Social programme and After Dark are a critical part of our ethos, a means to transform the area from ‘streets of shops’, to a vibrant social area that people want to hang out in and feel part of day and night.

Qualitative v quantitative change

Evidence is important. We live in an era where hard data rules. While quantitative results — like revenues, footfalls, and sales — are vital, they often miss the most important components of social innovation; the shift in tone, feel and experience.

Qualitative measures are really important. Their measurement isn’t about capturing numerical data in spreadsheets. It is about observation, scenarios and stories.

What the South Lanes Project showed us in terms of our towns and communities is that it is qualitative change that so many people crave. The desire to feel part of something, to belong, to contribute, to feel known, valued, safe, happy, and inspired. If there is one thing people really need in an uncertain and often hostile world, it is to feel that others have got their back.

The ultimate measure of success of a community is hope.

This is where we saw the biggest shift in the South Lanes Project. People talk about ‘the vibe’. A lot of the change has shown up in what people say and how they interact. There has been an uplift in positivity and creativity.

People who’ve worked in the area for years have reported getting to know their neighbours and other shop owners. Friendships and collaborations have been formed. Community projects have emerged organically out of the gatherings and meetings.

Social data

One of the biggest blindspots for many social regeneration programmes — particularly in terms of funding and Council and Business Improvement District spending — is a lack of insight into the needs, wants and location of those they are really trying to attract and impact: potental customers, tourists, new businesses, investors and citizens not currently coming into the area. The result of this is that thinking and actions become inwardly focused, leading to solutions that amplify what is already there rather than generate the kind of bold initiatives that are required to bring about real tranformation.

We employed social data analysis to inform our decisions and thinking and as one of the inputs into our hacks and gatherings — using data sources from both social media and datasets in the public domain.

Social data analysis allowed us to get insight into the changing social sentiment and demographics of the area and the wider environs, particularly providing us with insight into the concerns and needs of those who were not currently aware of, involved with, or fans of the area.

A million pound brand

The value of a brand is in its reach. In less than a year the South Lanes brand has become known everywhere from central government to local people.

South Lanes Social brand identity developed by Emilia Rolewicz

A brand isn’t a logo, it exists in the hearts and minds of people.

We have been backed by both the government minister for high streets and his counterpart in the opposition. We have been asked to write about the project for Retail Week and have been visited by the Save The High Streets project.

When we did an analysis of the value of the South Lanes brand we found it was worth upwards of one million pounds — and we have only just started. This is a testament to all the people of Colchester who got involved, all working for free and on their own time.

We want to thank all the independent businesses, musicians, artists, local politicians, the Gazette, Actual Radio, The Colchester Community Facebook Group, Red Lion Precinct, and all the many community organisations and venues that have been involved.

The fourth C we have found to be the most vital of all — collaboration.

Rising Star of the British High Street

In November 2019 The South Lanes Project was shortlisted as ‘Rising Star’ on the Great British High Street — the only nominee in the east of England, and the only project not backed by a Council or Business Improvement District.

This is a big feather in the cap of Colchester whatever the outcome. We hope we win — as well as prestige it will generate £15k of much needed funds to support the development of the project going forwards.

What’s possible

It’s hard — or perhaps too upsetting — to imagine big stores like Fenwicks or Debenhams closing. Both are working hard to turn around their fortunes. But the days of ‘big box retailers’ being the draw into town are over as the Internet and out-of-town centres with lots of parking draw shoppers away. Across the country we are seeing more and more chains close and downsize. We have two new out-of-town cinemas coming which will most likely see one or both of the town centre cinemas close. In the next few years we are going to see huge changes in what was the traditional makeup of the high street.

The South Lanes is the antidote to this. Colchester’s independent businesses, cafes, and vibrant alternative and creative community are what make the town both attractive and unique.

Over the next few years Colchester’s South Lanes can become the jewel in the town’s centre, marking it out as a destination, a place to visit and spend time and money in.

The South Lanes project is very much a prototype for what is possible — and needed — in our country today; a means to build and foster community and civic pride, generate joy and social connection, and heal divisions.

What next?

The first phase of the project — the launch phase — is now complete. A brand, reputation and community have been created, a series of events and ideas tested and honed.

In terms of Colchester what is needed next is investment by the people, the Council and Business Improvement District:

1. The South Lanes concept is owned by the people of Colchester. Its success depends on people getting involved — creating a community enterprise, building on the collaborations that have happened (like the recent Christmas Market in conjunction with the Red Lion Precinct).

2. The South Lanes need the backing of the Council with action — particularly the formal endorsement and support for the South Lanes brand with marketing, street signage and maps in the area.

3. The South Lanes needs investment from the Business Improvement District (BID). The BID has about £500k to spend each year for improving the centre of town. Currently £25k is earmarked for ‘independents’. Firstly — given the collective value and significance of the South Lanes to Colchester’s future — this amount needs to increase. Secondly it needs to be directed to support the development of the South Lanes brand with signage, marketing and investment in events.

The South Lanes Project is an opportunity for Colchester to be ‘ahead of the wave’ as our high streets and town centres continue to transform. In America they talk about the ‘Detroit Approach’, based on the success the city has had in regenerating itself with grassroots initiatives. In the north of England there is ‘The Preston Model’ — a successful model for local regeneration. What we have is the opportunity to create ‘The Colchester Model’ — a benchmark for how town centres can be transformed into thriving communities in the age of the Internet.

The bigger opportunity — for ambitious businesses and towns

The South Lanes Project is a framework and toolset for social and town centre regeneration. It provides the means to engage and empower community action. It has the potential to be both the civic and political model of the future— a critical shift from paternalism to participation.

It also provides a great opportunity for businesses. Most big businesses want to engage in social impact work, with many employees keen to take part and contribute. This often isn’t core to the business though. At the same time businesses need and crave insight about how social and customers needs are changing. The South Lanes model provides the means to do both these things at once, creating a virtuous circle of positive social impact, capability building and valuable insight.

Neil Gibb

Written by

Neil Gibb

Author: The Participation Revolution.

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