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Revitalizing Willesden High Road

Jan 3, 2012

by Chappell Ellison handmade and vintage goods

It’s never easy fighting the established design practices of large companies. Through several decades of marketing, we’ve come to accept that two golden arches indicates burgers and fries, while a green and white mermaid fires caffeine-addicted neurons in our brain. Independent shops are left to create their own symbols to attract passersby, a monumental task that is often at the heart of the matter when a business fails. Such struggles are currently playing out in the United Kingdom, where High Streets — often referred to as Main Streets in the U.S. — are in decline. A recent report states that one in six shops are vacant in the UK, a result of the spread of chain stores and malls. “High Streets must be ready to experiment, try new things, take risks and become destinations again,” wrote Mary Portas, appointee of the Prime Minister to lead an independent review of the High Streets. “I want to put the heart back into the centre of our High Streets, re-imagined as destinations for socialising, culture, health, wellbeing, creativity and learning.”

Design for London, a government-led resource established to improve urban life, is at the helm of a project that pairs young, emerging designers with shop owners in need of a street-view makeover. The setting for the initial phase of the project was the ailing Willesden High Road, located in northwest London. The government-funded project hopes to generate buzz, attracting shoppers who otherwise shop at nearby malls. Through working with individual designers, shops were given unique store window makeovers that provided an overall identity, standing in complete opposition to the placelessness of corporate branding. Known as the New Windows on Willesden Green, the 25 redesigned shops were revealed advent calendar-style, a daily surprise that tied into the holiday season. Additionally, on the weekend of December 17, Willesden was transformed into a series of workshop sites, where designers screen printed, stenciled and wrapped gifts with community members. “By revamping these 25 shop fronts, the designers have given each business a stronger, more appealing identity, but more importantly they’ve brought a renewed dynamism to the street,” wrote  Justin McGuirk for The Guardian.

The mayor’s infusion of financial support for the area is seen as a much-needed vote of confidence for citizens who are often overlooked in the greater scheme. “Traditionally, regeneration policies tend to focus on major infrastructural or building projects,” wrote McGuirk. “More modest, ‘window-dressing’ schemes such as the one in Willesden and others across London, which bring a feel-good factor and increase community pride, are taken less seriously.” So what’s next for New Windows on Willesden Green? In the second phase, the more, the merrier; the organization will soon field applications from new tenants to fill vacant storefronts. Hopefully, the story of Willesden will inspire other mayors to harness the power of collaborative brainstorming, encouraging community members to invest in their streets once again.

UK Edition


  • silversamba

    silversamba said 6 years ago

    This is awesome...makes me want head to a High Street right now! Great read. Thanks!

  • MegansMenagerie

    MegansMenagerie said 6 years ago


  • ThomasHaskettArtist

    ThomasHaskettArtist said 6 years ago

    Great idea/s, thanks for posting. Would love to be involved with that! :)

  • gilstrapdesigns

    gilstrapdesigns said 6 years ago

    Thank you this was really good article. It's so important for the small shops and shopping centers or shopping strips to keep their businesses opened I love going to small shops and small independent shopping areas. We have had the same problem here in the States for many many years.

  • pouch

    pouch said 6 years ago

    In the city I live in, there is an area called Stokes Croft. It is full of independent retailers and one of my favourite places to shop. A few months ago a Tesco Express store opened in the heart of this unique shopping area. Local residents were so incensed that it sparked a riot in April 2011. Since then, local residents have continued to campaign against the Tesco store. They believe that giant corporations will destroy the character of Stokes Croft and force small independent businesses to close down. Amongst other ideas, it has spurred them on to set up local food initiatives and 'free shops' to try and hold onto the individuality of the area. You can see more here: And you can watch the BBC documentary about the Stokes Croft residents who are trying to offer an alternative to the large retail corporations:

  • funktionslust

    funktionslust said 6 years ago

    Interestingly, there's a new trend in some of our larger canadian cities where big box and chain retailers put up store fronts that make them look like a small independent local shop, to attract customers who on purposely avoid big box and chain stores...

  • DecadesOfVintage

    DecadesOfVintage said 6 years ago

    I love how the redesigned shops were revealed.

  • LavenderField

    LavenderField said 6 years ago


  • bookBW

    bookBW said 6 years ago

    Mary Portas is pretty great, look forward to seeing street view images.

  • jolucksted

    jolucksted said 6 years ago

    This hits at the heart of the problem for high streets in the UK...small independent traders struggling to compete with larger identities. Use our small traders or high streets will die, and empty shops breed more empty shops. I took on the lease of a small shop on my local high street to use as my workshop/studio. I keep the front prettied up with things I've not sent to galleries yet and use the back as my workshop space - it's prevented another empty shop appearing in town and makes me feel like part of the community. Empty shops make great creative spaces!!

  • destroymodernart

    destroymodernart said 6 years ago

    Hmm, live one train stop away from there...most of our high streets have been taken over by pound shops, discount shoe shops, betting shops, phone shops and pawn brokers. It kind of suggests that the poor are not allowed to have nice things and if we do we should sell them. I should point out that the Mayor of London is a Tory and the tories are EVIL and they will only make things worse, even if they occasionally pretend to care.

  • RivalryTime

    RivalryTime said 6 years ago

    Good luck to all trying to help

  • volkerwandering

    volkerwandering said 6 years ago

    Sounds like fun!

  • pouch

    pouch said 6 years ago

    In the city I live in, there is an area called Stokes Croft. It is full of independent retailers and one of my favourite places to shop. A few months ago a Tesco Express store opened in the heart of this unique shopping area. Local residents were so incensed that it sparked a riot in April 2011. Since then, local residents have continued to campaign against the Tesco store. They believe that giant corporations will destroy the character of Stokes Croft and force small independent businesses to close down. Amongst other ideas, it has spurred them on to set up local food initiatives and 'free shops' to try and hold onto the individuality of the area.

  • pouch

    pouch said 6 years ago

    And you can watch the BBC documentary about the Stokes Croft residents who are trying to offer an alternative to the large retail corporations:

  • Aranacci

    Aranacci said 6 years ago

    Perfect ! great to know.

  • stepbackink

    stepbackink said 6 years ago

    That's what is needs to be here.

  • rogerpinvirginia

    rogerpinvirginia said 6 years ago

    Excellent stuff, getting lots of people involved, giving young designers a showcase for their talents by making a 'run-down area' quite trendy, much like Notting Hill Gate and Covent Garden (to name two) many years ago, and also directly creating employment and a 'user friendly' evrironment to shop in. Roger (A Londoner from Richmond/Twickenham area, now resident in Richmond , Virginia

  • DoorCountyWoodworks

    DoorCountyWoodworks said 6 years ago

    Great read! This world does not need another big-box store or cookie-cutter franchise. Keep up the fight!

  • cottonbirddesigns

    cottonbirddesigns said 6 years ago

    Great article!

  • mazedasastoat

    mazedasastoat said 6 years ago

    The fact is that arty-farty posh handbag shops & places selling "designer" gear for the under-fives simply don't have enough of a customer base to keep a High Street alive. If you don't want YOUR local town to end up dead in the centre you HAVE to use the butcher, greengrocer, baker, etc. Sadly, most folks buy all their groceries at the supermarket because it's cheaper & easier. Until local towns address problems like over-priced parking charges people will continue to avoid the town centre shops.

  • VintageRescueSquad

    VintageRescueSquad said 6 years ago

    This is heartwarming, and the photo is making me jealous!

  • lindaalfred2000

    lindaalfred2000 said 6 years ago

    Nice design in the picture.

  • lindaalfred2000

    lindaalfred2000 said 6 years ago

    Thanks for sharing this with us.

  • Iammie

    Iammie said 6 years ago

    Interesting article!

  • NDMStudios

    NDMStudios said 6 years ago

    Awesome :)

  • LittleWrenPottery

    LittleWrenPottery said 6 years ago

    I think its unfortunate, people have less money to spend so where they actually do choose to shop is really important. Statistics of UK shoppers suggest that while the high street is struggling internet sales are booming...

  • panchromatica

    panchromatica said 6 years ago

    The UK government commissioned Mary Portas to carry out a review of High Streets - you can read her report here: The 28 recommendations contain a mixture of ideas, some not exactly new, some requiring strong central direction from government (never a good idea) and some that will struggle in the recession. The sort of uses she says should be encouraged, galleries, gyms, cafes etc are exactly those least likely to succeed at at the moment. Still worth a read though. See also this scheme about Dalston:

  • delectabledenim

    delectabledenim said 6 years ago

    I agree with mazedasastoat - you have to use the town centre! Selby (in North Yorkshire) is my nearest town and still has butchers, greengrocers and bakers) York- the nearest city... has no such thing in the centre!! Selby may not be as touristy as York... so has shoppers who shop for everyday stuff... whilst York is full of tourists - so the locals go to the out of town shopping centres, with the giant supermarkets. My aim this year is to cut down on the amount of stuff that I buy from the supermarket even more than I already do!

  • wildcreations

    wildcreations said 6 years ago

    This is a great article and I hope more places will try a scheme like this out. But to use the town centres I need them to be open when I'm not at work. They worked well when the women of this world were at home through out the day and could pop in to town to do their shopping, but a lot of us now work 9-5 and by the time I am home and ready to do my shopping everything in town except the supermarket is closed. Business need to change the way they work to match changing social needs.

  • urbandon

    urbandon said 6 years ago

    Excellent. Ailing High Streets are happening everywhere- including Sydney.

  • hillbillyhulagal

    hillbillyhulagal said 6 years ago

    Wonderful article! Creativity is the answer. People with creativity are the answer. We must get back to basics.

  • mssartwork

    mssartwork said 6 years ago

    This is such a wonderful and motivational story!! Thanks for sharing! :) We can all be our own high street.

  • HibouCards

    HibouCards said 6 years ago

    This is such a smart idea and one can only hope such an initiative would be led here in the US. There are a lot of stores closing in big cities like boston where I live and maybe a collaboration like this could benefit those that are in difficulty... I also think there may be a need for More attractive town centers with smaller stores offering quality products instead of always the big stores with standardized products that look the same everywhere... Thanks for this article!

  • packmatthews

    packmatthews said 6 years ago

    Lisa Bartlett, ( here in Columbia MO was my introduction to Etsy. She is also instrumental in revitalizing our down town. She is part of a coalition of artists and developers who have created North Village Arts Village, a previously blighted area of our downtown that is now hippest place to be. Artists and craftspeople are the best urban renewers and sustainers.

  • feltmeupdesigns

    feltmeupdesigns said 6 years ago

    I live in a seaside town and we're also experiencing so many empty shops that out of season our high street looks very sad indeed. We have some lovely shops but it seems that tourists stick to the main drag and so our lovely smaller shops are suffering. We have some great little arty areas popping up in the smaller streets where rents are cheaper but all the work to try and rejuvenate our town is coming from individuals and not our council who should really be taking steps to stop yet another pound shop or tescos opening. That said they have started filling the windows of empty shops with art work so at least something is happening to brighten up the town. Fab article

  • KaiceJoy

    KaiceJoy said 6 years ago

    Great reading!

  • morganstreet

    morganstreet said 6 years ago

    I was born and raised in St. Pauls, Bristol and so I know the Stokes Croft area very well. I haven't been there in many years and watching the video made me very proud of all of you fighting for the area. Keep up the good work!

  • phuleffect

    phuleffect said 6 years ago

    This completely made my day! I used to live just off Willesden High Road on Anson Lane. Great article--still smiling after looking through the revitalized shops.

  • ErikaPrice

    ErikaPrice said 6 years ago

    Thank you for this great article - if is so important for us all that small independent shops are allowed and encouraged to thrive. But if we don't use them we lose them - so we need to bear that in mind next time we head down the high street :)

  • 2monkees

    2monkees said 6 years ago

    Portland Oregon, where I live, is a very neighborhood town with many local, small shops. There is great support for the handmade community and the shops that support it. Unfortunately, even here, we are beginning to see these shops close or really struggle. The economy has really taken a toll on all those involved! It is nice to hear about other areas that are finding ways to support the small shops!

  • LilliPilliJewellery

    LilliPilliJewellery said 6 years ago

    We have the same problem here in Australia as well - mostly thanks to our friends at Westfield. Some suburbs are fighting back with outdoor cafes and restaurants, independent shops and services and closing parts of streets to vehicles. I'd much rather shop locally from an independent retailer.than from a chain shop any day.

  • vintagemaison

    vintagemaison said 6 years ago

    Interesting article. There is the same problem in France - huge mega-stores on the edge of towns sucking the life out of the local shops and preventing the elderly and car-less from shopping with ease and taking away the individuality of shops and businesses. Incidentally, although Mary Portas is banging the drum for local shops in UK, she has effectively prevented many low-income pensioners and families from buying their needs from charity shops by her 'bigging-up' charity shops and turning them into mini-boutiques. The prices of second-hand clothing and other items is soaring - sometimes more than the equivalent brand-new item. Mary, if you are reading this, please stick to helping the high street shops, and leave the charity shops alone...

  • sandylackie

    sandylackie said 6 years ago

    Today (in Australia) I shopped in two shops - a bag shop & a bookshop - that both look as though they'll be closing soon. I'm starting to wonder how any shop can compete with the might of Woollies, Big W, Coles, chain stores etc. It warms the cockles of my heart to read that speciality stores are fighting back & doing it so brilliantly.Thanks for the BBC url on Stokes Trent. I will watch with interest...

  • Zalavintage

    Zalavintage said 6 years ago

    Lets also look at raising consumer expectations, change the mindset of more is better regardless of quality. Instead of 3 poorly made, inexpensive tops from a large chain, why not one well-made classic from Main Street and Etsy which offers both vintage and well-made originals.

  • ClothandINK

    ClothandINK said 6 years ago

    Great read, such an interesting article and video. I agree Zalavintage, mindset needs to change. Quality not quantity. Do we want every high street in every town to look the same? Nah!

  • jewelsbyjayne

    jewelsbyjayne said 6 years ago

    Having lived in Ascot for a year and reading your story makes me yearn for the charming little villages with the high street being the center of life. I really hate to think of it losing that importance. I find the Brits being able to hold onto the beauty of the past much more so than in the states. I'm new on this site and I'm just now uploading my pictures.

  • BanglewoodSupplies

    BanglewoodSupplies said 6 years ago

    Thanks for the article.

  • PrincesaAnastasia

    PrincesaAnastasia said 6 years ago

    good article

  • DelilahsAttic

    DelilahsAttic said 6 years ago

    Wow, that is cool! Britain seems to be a happening place, haha :)

  • panchromatica

    panchromatica said 6 years ago

    Anyone in the USA might find this site interesting

  • panchromatica

    panchromatica said 6 years ago

    Sorry - meant to include this one too

  • Racheletc

    Racheletc said 6 years ago

    Thank God for Mary Portas who singlehandedly is trying to stop the UK from becoming a country full of faceless, giant corporation shops! (oh yes, and who give bad customer service..).

  • fairlyamy

    fairlyamy said 6 years ago

    I live on Willesden Green High road and the transformation is amazing! One of the reasons I moved here is because of the amazing variety of shops on the High Road - you can literally buy anything, and it's lovely now that the windows have been transformed, attracting more people to this lovely area.

  • VivaCreations

    VivaCreations said 6 years ago

    Love the Blog! Check out my Double Hoop Turquoise Earrings on Etsy. Aloha from Hawaii!

  • tableclothpad

    tableclothpad said 6 years ago

    Beautiful i like this.

  • MagpieWorkshop

    MagpieWorkshop said 6 years ago

    Fab article and thoughtful comments.

  • titty1113

    titty1113 said 6 years ago

    Amazing idea, only problem is: I live 5 minutes from Willesden High road and did not know about this!!!!! Maybe they should have paid more attention on advertising this? Eg. Printing leaflets and making sure at least locals get those?

  • amytee252

    amytee252 said 6 years ago

    I wish something like this would happen in Forest Gate. I live literally a stone's throw from the 2012 olympic park, and everytime I go up my high street is feel a sadness at the way my high street looks like every other urban high street.... full of chicken shops and internet cafes... more so chicken shops...East London most definately needs to be revived

  • sparrowsalvage

    sparrowsalvage said 5 years ago

    I visited the UK a couple of years ago, and found the biggest problem is that people are obsessed with 'cheap'- whether or not they can afford the higher priced item, they will chose the bargain. It's not just my poor friends and family who are like this- my aunt is a millionaire (no really) and she won't spend more than a penny more than she has to- i remember missing out on lunch at a wonderful independant local produce cafe because she refused to pay more than 6 pounds for lunch! Another problem is the class division- working class people seem to delight in their ready meal lifestyle; anything remotely out of the standard is considered posh and therefore to be mocked. if the UK wants to get back to a place where it's shops and producers are safe, there is much work to be done in closing the social views in the class divide (frankly i'm amazed it's still there) and encourage people to spend more whenever they can afford it. I am passionate about this sort of thing and want to make it my life; I plan to move to the UK from Australia in a year or two and cannot wait to become involved in community projects like this, especially when food is concerned!

  • FedRaDD

    FedRaDD said 5 years ago

    I am new to Etsy but for 25 years I lead a small shop. I hope that we will never destroy the small stores and independent shops. go on!

  • ComposurePhotography

    Jenny Trott from ComposurePhotography said 5 years ago

    A great subject to discuss. I ca remember the highlight of my visits to new places when I was younger was searching out the "itty bitty" shops as I called them - independant retailers full of suprises. Sadly my daughter can't enjoy the same experience, there just isn't the choice any more.

  • freyagushi

    freyagushi from freyagushi said 5 years ago

    That is fab ! London and other cities are really lacking of independent stores.. Everything shut down due to the high rents :/. It is years i am looking for some affordable space to sell my clothing and never found anything suitable. The week ends markets aren't affordable and anyway full of mass produced goods once again. It is such a shame to see so many empty buildings. It is a wonderful idea to use the space for some time which would benefit both landlord and small businesses. I do hope more and more similar projects will pop up . After years of internet selling i do really miss the contact with customers. I would love to be able to showcase my work and sell in London .. I have many friends that are in the same situation so i will certainly spread the word !:

  • FrangipanCrafts

    Fran Kemp from FrangipanCrafts said 5 years ago

    That is a great idea. We have a couple of empty shops in our town right now and the council is letting would be business`s take on a property free from rent for one month and letting them put all their own unique products on view to sell. This has caused quite a talking point amongst local people who are very happy to see different people putting forward their own ideas and finding brilliant items to buy and at the same time filling an empty high street shop. Several small business`s have been involved already and doing well. This is what re-generation is all about.

  • ZellaAccessories

    Vanessa Bizzell from ZellaAccessories said 5 years ago

    Utilising empty shops is such a good idea...Sheffield has been doing this in the city centre for a while with it's Sheffield Showcase and it's attracted a huge range of independant labels small shops extending their reach, artists, charities and student projects. I'll miss the vibrancy of these spaces once they're filled but am also hoping they'll get pushed gradually further from the city centre as the economy's sad seeing how hard our city is struggling.

  • yqsl66

    Ada Ada from idajewelry66 said 5 years ago

    Thanks for the article.

  • gemmapayne

    Gemma Payne from MollyMooJessicatoo said 5 years ago

    Just thought I'd give you an update on the project as I'm lucky enough to have some of my work stocked in one of the shops Roses and Strings. This particular unit is on its 5th week of opening and the launch for the whole project was on 31st March. I went along to that launch and I was not only impressed by how the units look but by the range of products that are for sale and the general buzz about the place. It really is exciting and uplifting, although I didn't know the area before so I can't comment on the impact of it. They are all pop up shops with a 3 month lease initially and they're waiting to see what the landlord of the property will do next . For my products it has been great as I'm getting far more sales than I expected and I've met 2 new friends, Laura and Heather, who run Roses and Strings. If you're interested and would like to keep updated Laura has a great blog

  • PieAndBrush

    Genie from PieAndBrush said 5 years ago

    Thank you for writing about this, Chappell, thank you! I read this blog back in january, and I live just round the corner from there. I met like-minded people through the project, we put in an application and got a space, we are now managing Vintage Green together and it's an amazing opportunity. It's been such an interesting learning process (and still is). the lease was due to end after 3 months but it's now been extended til December and it does make the high street a hell of a lot better. Gemma Payne, I love your creations by the way.

  • EvangelineBlack

    Evangeline Black from EvangelineBlack said 5 years ago

    Many years ago I lived in Willesden and visited the High Street regularly. The book shop near the library is a real gem! It’s great to see that people are coming together to improve the area.

  • Pamperhaven

    Pamperhaven from Pamperhaven said 5 years ago

    This is a fantastic idea, Willesden High Street is not too far from me. I've actually been to that project in June and bought a beautiful floral candle stand from one of the crafters there.

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