The image of the decaying town shopping centre, retail units empty, to-let signs plastered across whitewashed windows, is fast becoming the norm across the UK. A combination of economic woes, out-of-town retail parks and the juggernaut of online shopping has led to the decimation of town centre retailing, which in turn can become a net contributor to the decline of the town as a whole.

So in the midst of this retail wasteland, lies fertile space for radical redesign and regeneration. Perfect territory for permaculture thinking. One such project, York Place, in Newcastle-Under-Lyme has sparked a revolution in our perception of ‘the shopping centre’ and is proving that they can, and should be, so much more than just places to buy stuff.

While not explicitly a ‘permaculture project’ it embodies much of what we would laud as sound permacultural design, embodying both the ethics and principles we endeavour to include in our work.

Mike Riddell, Director of Hometown Plus, the social business behind the York Place project has helped create a space that acts as both retail and community hub. Spaces within the centre now host youth projects, and community organised ‘maker spaces’ as well as new and quirky retailers bringing fresh ideas and ethical products with them.

But perhaps the most interesting idea to reinvigorate the project and one that ties in closely with the permaculture principles of ‘produce no waste’ and ‘use edges and value the marginal’, is the creation of a new currency, CounterCoin. This is more than just another local currency to encourage a recirculation of wealth within the community. It is a new hybrid currency aimed at jobless young people that gives economic value to voluntary community work, by rewarding those that volunteer with products and services that would otherwise go to waste.

So CounterCoin performs at least 4 obvious functions (single element – multiple functions), which we of course love in a good design.

  • It acts as a viable alternative currency to be spent within York Place and thus recirculates within the local community economy.
  • It diverts ‘waste products’ back into valuable use.
  • It actively incentivises community and volunteer work which benefits everyone.
  • The scheme is aimed an unemployed young people primarily so helps activate and motivate them in positive ways.

For every hour of community / voluntary work done £5 of CounterCoins are earned. This can be spent on any of the available products listed within the scheme and ranges from food close to its sell-by date to unsold cinema tickets but can encompass any ‘excess or unsold’ product, service or experience within York Place.

The new approach and design of the centre has had a radical positive effect. More than a third of all retail units were vacant in 2016 and now in 2018 all are occupied or in the process of being occupied. And as evidenced by the video made by young people involved in the concept, the new currency has had an empowering and positive effect on their lives.

The vision of Hometown Plus, to reimagine and reinvent an icon of what so many of us may feel has been the wrong vision for town centres, is testament to the power of integration not segregation. Bringing together the vision of designers, property owners, retailers, youth groups and innovative retailers, has made this project possible. As a result of this success several new retail sites are now being reinvigorated along similar lines.

What else might be possible where you live?

More information on CounterCoin watch the video here: