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Sky gardens and skateparks: Our vision for Oxford Street 2030

07 August 2023

This article first appeared in Retail Week.

In its current state, Oxford Street is dragging its heels in the rank of international retail centres. But what could it look like if it was a gold-medal winner? We came up with a new vision for Oxford Street, in an ideal world with an unlimited budget, free from timeframes and not at the mercy of willingness from its stakeholders. Our Creative Team at Imagination London explores the thinking behind our vision.

If Oxford Street is the UK’s premier shopping street, we don’t stand much of a chance on the world stage. Not only competing with neighbouring Regent Street or Covent Garden, it’s up against Rodeo Drive, Orchard Road and Champs-Élysees to catch the eye and spend of the world’s tourists. With just a couple of unique retailers, a dearth of green spaces, and a host of shifty American candy and vape stores, a shot at the podium seems unlikely.

Oxford Street retailer and chief executive of ChangeGroup, Sacha Zackariya, says: “During Covid, many countries said, ‘Hey, we're going to use this opportunity to upgrade and to improve our shopping district’. Across the world, we see a lot of investment taking place because people used that time and bounced back because there’s such a huge, pent-up demand for people to come shopping.

“One of the things the UK has rested its laurels on was that it was an enticing place to come to pre-Brexit when tax refund shopping was a really huge draw. Because, let’s be honest, it wasn’t the weather. I know the traffic extremely well on Oxford Street, I’ve been here for three decades. I’ve seen the number of people walking about the Marble Arch end in particular having dropped off. I can honestly say that there's a lot that could be done that just isn't being done.”

But Oxford Street is not only letting itself down with tourists, it is also missing its opportunity to connect with Londoners, says, our team. “We found this to be not just an interesting topic, but a really important one. It’s the importance of the bigger London picture.”

“With people working from home and not going out into the city, businesses struggling (particularly small businesses), more crime, more homelessness and all of these big social issues – it’s our job as designers to solve these problems where politicians can’t. We really got behind it as a team – and Oxford Street is just one example, but it’s the kind of thing that needs to be thought about across high streets across the UK.”

The Sky Garden

The Chelsea Flower Show, Kew Gardens and miles of parks are just a few of the reasons London has some of the most impressive horticulture of any major city across the globe – and Oxford Street could be a reflection of that. Inspired by New York City’s High Line, this sky garden concept would bring much-needed green space to the street, while allowing visitors to break up their shopping session with relaxation activities and hopefully be encouraged to stay on the street for longer.

“A new definition of public space is introduced above the hustle and bustle of the street as a calming, pleasurable and natural environment, accessible for all to experience – to dwell, relax and enjoy at oneʼs own leisure and pace”.

The concept takes underutilised and often neglected rooftop space along the street to create a series of gardens, interconnected by green walkways. It would occupy an entire block or two and ideally be situated in a location equidistant between Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road Underground stations.

Below the gardens, on some of the underused floors, we suggest the spaces be repurposed into hotel and hospitality offerings, with the dining spaces connected to the garden walkways.

The sky gardens reclaim disused buildings, facilities and amenities to create joint public and commercial spaces – a fusion of parks, commerce and hotels creating “a new synthesis of ʻrelaxationʼ and ʻactivityʼ that people desire, bringing nature to the high-density urban jungle".

Inclusive community space

“The history of this street has always been about community, full of people from different cultures and walks of life, it's a poly-cultural melting pot. And it is transient, it flows with the days, the hours and the seasons. It needs to this big thing to draw people into London, encourage people to go outside and come into town. Even for the workers, you should want to go in on a non-working day because the town is buzzing again, we need to move it from surviving to thriving.”

The marketplace

Oxford Street under-indexes on places to eat and drink compared with neighbouring shopping hubs like Covent Garden and this concept would bring a taste of Borough Market to the street.

This concept would involve a takeover of the ground- and first-floor levels of a whole block, on both sides of the street, stripping much of it out to create a widened covered outdoor space.

“Celebrating food and drink from small, independent, local traders; how it tastes and makes us feel, connecting us to the people who produced it and the places it was made”.

The result would be an urban plaza dotted with market stalls and eateries, selling a blend of ready-to-eat meals and produce, as well as outdoor furniture to allow visitors to recuperate.

We see this concept as an opportunity to showcase British produce, hospitality and the wealth of international cuisines that help form it – making it an ideal spot for Oxford Street’s international contingent as well as London foodies.

The marketplace celebrates food and drink from small, independent, local traders; connecting shoppers to the people who produced it and the places it was made. An incredible range of food from all over Britain and the world.

Retail revolution

Everyone loves an immersive flagship, but they are by nature predominantly executed by retailers with deep pockets and global footprints. Therefore, the street is at risk of becoming homogenised.

To combat this, we've suggested ring-fencing a portion of the street for a combination of smaller independents, events, pop-ups and experimental retail. The space acts as a pop-up mall over multiple floors and presents endless opportunities to excite shoppers.

“An innovative retail model that invites global brands to have a physical presence at an iconic destination in the heart of London; to appear with experimental product offers, showcase unique collaboration ranges, launch special product or new collections, deploy new types of experiential retail formats, or to install beta-spaces for testing new ideas, products, services and future-facing retail concepts”.

The design features small and medium, glass-fronted units connecting with the outdoors with clusters of seating areas and urban walkways to connect the space across the street below.

It also complements Westminster City Council's Meanwhile On: Oxford Street, which offers independent retailers the chance to apply for a rent-free unit on the street for a limited time.

This pop-up area is a counterpoint to both global brand flagships and the ʻspace fillersʼ that consist of candy shops and low-value tourist traps sporadically populating Oxford Street. It offers a unique shopping experience comprised of independent British brands, from start-up and fledgling businesses to more well-known names.

Outdoor active

Brits aren’t known for their ability to be carefree in public, but this concept hopes to shake that up. It takes disused spaces and turns them into skateparks, outdoor gyms, climbing walls and exercise parks in a bid to bring more community engagement into the street.

“In a post-pandemic world, weʼre bringing back physical movement and social spaces, through a playground of activity and expression for the communities of Oxford Street to enjoy the outdoors, with highly accessible outdoor adventures catered to all, turning underutilised streets into energy-packed larger-than-life recreational facilities”.

Not only catering to the physical health of the city, but the mental wellness too, the design creates room for yoga spaces, mindfulness parks and meditation hubs.

The street has the potential to become a place that engages schools and universities, which could regularly utilise the areas, and could become a hub for health-aligned retailers, as well as healthy food and drink brands.

An outdoors, active zone for people on Oxford Street to enjoy the outdoors with highly accessible adventures catered to all, turning underused streets into energy-packed, larger-than-life recreational facilities that focus on health, wellness and movement.

Entertainment epicentre

Leisure and activity brands are already gaining ground on Oxford Street, but this concept creates a mothership for all things entertainment.

Play arcades, a gaming suite, mini-golf, ping pong, bowling and indoor skydiving would all add a dose of fun to the street, and create areas for families, friends and couples to spend time.

“An immersive epicentre of tourist-oriented leisure varieties for the whole family to spend as a shared day (or night) out and enjoy a diverse mix of exciting experiences in a single entertainment complex with a vibrant atmosphere, bringing fun, exhilaration and happiness to their lives”.

To bring more life to the street after dark, an arena could host events from musicians to comedians, while sub-arenas could welcome sport competitions and roller discos.

The design endeavours to provide something for everyone, building in an indoor play and education park for toddlers, adventure play and interactive learning spaces, as well as a multi-screen cinema.

An immersive experience and entertainment zone offering tourist-oriented leisure varieties for families, teens, adults or friends to spend a shared day (or night) out and enjoy a diverse mix of experiences in a single entertainment complex with a vibrant atmosphere.