Improving the public realm, (ie the streets, squares, or parking areas) of your High Street can help to make it a more pleasant place to shop, meet friends or neighbours or simply enjoy being outside.

Public space improvements can be expensive and sometimes can take a long time to realise. We advise you therefore to start small. Also simple interventions such as adding plant boxes, benches, or small play-and bike facilities can make a real difference and, on their own, do not cost much.


Making changes to public space will affect everyone who comes to the High Street. It is therefore good to engage others early on, to make sure you are not proposing ideas that others don’t really like. Equally, it is important that you know what limits there are for public space improvements in a particular place, especially if the space is owned/ managed by the Council or Transport for London.

Whether you have a small idea or want to do something bigger, you should always test your ideas with others and ask feedback from those affected by your proposal. For example, a shop owner may not be happy with the bench or tree you propose to put in front of his or her shop.

If your ideas are not that clear yet, you could organise a design workshop to collect other people’s ideas. If you do so, there are a few things to keep in mind:

– make sure your workshop is open to everyone. Make some extra effort to include “hard-to-reach” groups to avoid being challenged upon only listening to certain people.
– be clear about the limits of a project – you don’t want to give people false expectations
– inspire people with examples from other places – even better is to visit other places with a group of people and discuss what you have seen and how this could work in your local context
– make sure that you offer a few different ways for people to express their ideas: eg by writing a short explanation, making a drawing or simply by telling their idea to someone.
– consider hiring professionals to help you: for example, graphic artists or cartoonists can help people to visualise their ideas and reward them with a fun drawing.


It is important to have a group of local enthusiasts together who feel passionate about contributing to the High Street. As you are likely to need significant collaboration with the Council, it would be good to have someone on your team who knows his or her way around the Town Hall’s corridors. It is also important to have a group member who knows about urban design and planning. If these are hard to find, you could for example ask a local architecture or urban design firm to help you out on a voluntary basis.

For larger projects, it wise to structure the group formally. As a minimum, you should have a:

– Chair (this could be a rotating position)
– Secretary
– Treasurer (manages the budget)

More information on roles

If you are working with a contractor, appoint a (volunteer) project manager who can work with the contractor on a daily basis. For larger projects, you may wish to appoint a chartered surveyor to control the contractor’s work. The Council should be able to advise you further on this issue.

Do I need to formalise my group?
If you are not part of an existing organisation, you should first consider talking to an established local organisation, such as a community group or traders association. They might like your idea and offer you use of their meeting space, computers, bank account, etc.

If that is not possible you might want to consider setting up an unincorporated association. This is an organisation set up through an agreement between a group of people who come together for a reason other than making a profit. There is no need to register such an association and it doesn’t cost anything to set one up. Write a constitution to make sure that every group member understands the purpose and rules of the group. Don’t forget that individual members of an unincorporated association are personally responsible for any debts or contractual obligations, ie licences or insurance.

Having a group bank account is the best way to make sure the group’s money is kept safely. Most high street banks offer special accounts for community groups. You will need to have at least two members of the group willing to act as signatories.
Opening a bank account
Template for a Constitution

Council Support
If your idea is to make a more significant addition to a public space, it will be essential to talk to a wide range of council officers.
The Commission of Architecture and the Built Environment advises that discussions are held with:

– elected councillors, who can raise the profile of the project (list of Sutton councillors)
– planning officers, who can help test the viability of the project and advise on planning regulations and site ownership
– parks and green space officers, who may have a strategy to identify priorities and can advise on management and maintenance
– street care and cleansing officers, who may provide on-site staff and advise of the impact of the project on litter collection and rubbish collection services
– the local strategic partnership, which can provide a route for the project to gain funding and recognition
– youth and community officers, who can involve young people in the project
– ecology officers, who can help identify the animals and plants already on a site and help encourage biodiversity.


In general there are 4 stages in making public space improvements:

1) preparing – understanding the place and gathering ideas
2) designing – designing your intervention in detail
3) building – the actual construction project
4) use – the period of maintenance

Each stage needs to be planned properly and can take a few months. When making a plan it is good to take the seasons into account. For example, it is better to open a new picnic area in summer than in winter.

Depending on the size of your project it can easily take two years or more to move from ideas to realisation. You will need to consult local people, get approval from the Council and /or the landowner, get funding and reserve time to select a contractor. Some materials may take a few weeks or months to be delivered.

A helpful tool for planning your project is a Gantt chart. It allows you to set actions in time and track completion.

Gantt chart for Excel

The majority of the costs for public space interventions are in buying materials and paying man-hours for building contractors. If you hire consultants (eg (landscape) architects, artists, surveyors or structural engineers), you will need to budget for these costs as well. Take into account at least 10-20% of your total budget.

Simple improvements, such as adding benches or trees, can be made for a few thousand pounds. More complex initiatives (eg repaving sidewalks) can easily cost anywhere between £20,000 and £100,000. It is important to keep in mind that once you have delivered a public realm improvement, you will also need resources to maintain it. If you are applying for funding make sure you budget for future maintenance costs.


The Council often owns public space and therefore you can’t make any changes without talking to the Council first and getting its permission. Sometimes private owners own a publicly accessible space. An example of these is a parking area adjacent to shops. You will then need to talk to the landowner and the Council. Do this as soon as possible, but don’t forget your case may be stronger if you can show proof of support from other community members for your plan.

Conservation Areas
Some areas of historical value are designated as Conservation Zones. Making changes to public space in these areas is often much more restricted than in normal areas. Check at the start if your High Street is in a conservation area and if so, talk to the Council as soon as possible to prevent disappointment.

List of Sutton Conservation areas

As part of the Local Development Framework, Sutton Council has also developed Urban Design Guidance. This planning document sets out design principles for all developments and detailed planning guidance for specific areas.

Sutton Council Urban Design Guidance

Another document developed by Sutton Council sets out how you can prevent crime through good design.

Sutton Council Designing Out Crime

Play England has developed design guidance for playgrounds and equipment.

Play England Design Guidance


Once the work is completed you of course want to celebrate this. Think about what kind of event you would like to organise early on. It could be anything, from just having a few drinks with a couple of people to a grand opening speech and music, etc. Think about who you would like to invite to give a speech. If that person is someone people know (such as a councillor or a famous person who is connected to the area) it will give your opening a bit more prestige.

Check our Event section to see what is involved in organising an event.

You can also create publicity by sending out a press release. They are free of charge and can reach a lot of people. If you have done something which makes a big impact, local press may want to attend the opening or invite you for an interview.

How to write a press release
Sutton Guardian
Surrey Comet


Strategic Planning
by email or telephone via switchboard on 020 8770 5000.

Additional reads:
CABE guide “It’s our space
DCLG guide “Re-imagining urban spaces to help revitalise our high streets