Last week the Adaptable Suburbs project had the opportunity of speaking about its work at UCL’s Lunch Hour Lectures series.

Much of the content of our series of blogs: ’10 Things you might not know about high streets’ was recapped here. Of particular interest were the comments and questions from the audience, which can be taken to reflect what’s on the mind of people thinking about the future high streets. These were as follows:

Local networks

The first point related to the Transition Town movement. An audience member pointed out that grass root activism has tremendous importance in enlivening high streets. Initiatives such as local growing of crops add layers of connections to the local community. Interestingly, she mentioned the Kentish Town based movement, which, coincidentally (or not) has had some considerable success in starting a web-based cultural news site that has started to publish a monthly print edition: The Kentishtowner. I wonder if this a reversal of the trend of papers moving to online-only editions.

High streets: serving as both link and place

The second question related to transport and asked whether busy transport conduits have an impact on how high streets develop. Jones et al’s research on ‘mixed use streets’ for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation is relevant here. The authors argue that the principles of modernist planning served to undermine the characteristic mix of the traditional high street by deploying large, isolated blocks to separate buildings from streets, traffic from pedestrians and different land uses from each other. It is evident that traffic comes to play a part iwhen the high street’s role as a place in its own right as well as a link within a regional movement system, comes into conflict with its being an important transit route. In extreme cases, high traffic volumes can start to sever the two sides of a high street into two. Indeed, this is the topic of enquiry in the new Street Mobility and Network Accessibility project recently started at UCL[1].

Impact of online shopping

One of the questions was about internet shopping, asking whether large online sites constituted a threat to high streets, or will they survive alongside them? It was interesting to hear from the audience a couple of examples where internet shopping is actually creating new physical realities on high streets. ‘Shop and Drop’ sites, which allow people to order online and then collect from a town centre location mean that community functions such as libraries (for example in London’s Shepherds Bush) or indeed independent shops, can benefit from additional footfall. Local distributors working from a small van on behalf of online retailers and online retailers using internet data analysis to work out where to locate distribution depot locations all suggest that – putting aside that shopping is not the only aspect of high streets – online shopping may create new realities on the high street. Indeed, with collection of deliveries by individuals needing to take place after work hours, only time will tell whether new activities that take advantage of early evening footfall will emerge on local high streets.

Residential presence in the high street

The significance and change in residential uses in the high street has, as an audience member commented, flowed up and down (and indeed our data show this, as can be seen in the significant amount of unclassified (mostly residential) land uses that can be seen on the maps shown during the lecture. The question raised was regarding the importance of residential buildings to the vitality of high street. The response made during the lecture was that despite the pressures to densify residences in town centres, it is vital that non-domestic land uses are not diluted beyond a certain point. Structures such as messy workshops – especially those typically located just behind high streets – can seem ripe for conversion to residential use, but they serve a vital need in providing space for new businesses to start up at low risk and with the benefit of adjacency to the functions and footfall that the high street provides. The businesses themselves provide additional footfall as well as, in the long run, local employment

As the example of South Norwood’s Portland Road has shown, when one side of the high street is allowed to convert to residential uses, the outcome is that the opposite side suffers. The key to successful residential/non-domestic mixing can be seen in places like Chipping (High) Barnet, where footpaths connect between the high street and its hinterland. Residential uses need to be accessible to the high street. If they are to be built on the high street itself, it seem evident that this has to be in locations at the farthest reaches of the peak activity.

Portland Road, South Norwood

Indeed we commented on this matter following the interim consultation by DCLG on “The Future of High Streets” in July 2013, which suggested a change in UK government policy to allow empty properties on the high street to contain a wide range of new uses, including increasing "housing on the high street". We wrote to Building Design at the time that “we would make a plea to take the decision to increase housing with caution: losing the spatial continuity of ‘live’ uses on either side of a street has the potential outcome of allowing it to wither over time.”

Chipping Barnet Magistrates Court. Image June 2008 (built c. 1916 now closed)

Community Services

The last question related to the importance of community services to high streets. This is unquestionably a vital aspect of what we’ve termed as the ‘active’ town centre, encompassing the non-domestic land uses that collectively populate the surroundings of high streets and, given sufficient spatial connectivity, generate additional trips to and through them. The example given during the Q&A was of the magistrates court, which by virtue of its situation at the heart of local communities, populates the area with visitors and employees of the court system.

Chipping Barnet Magistrates Court c. 1960. © Crown Copyright/database right 2013. An Ordnance Survey/EDINA supplied service.

Our research has shown that notwithstanding the fluctuation between the proportions of different types of land uses, there is a steady state of each of the five main groups of land uses, as shown in the graph below: throughout the past 135 years community services have always been between 10-20% of all land uses within the high street environs of the four cases we’ve studied in detail (Barnet, Surbiton, South Norwood and Loughton). It seems self-evident that to maintain the stability of this ecosystem of interdependent activities we must take care to not lose this balance.

High Barnet land uses: proportions over time for an identical comparative area

As an aside to close this blog, it’s important to note that notwithstanding the role of magistrates courts in providing local justice, they also serve (and have always served) additional administrative functions, such issuing of licenses, warrants and summonses, the taking of oaths and approval of parish rates. Chipping Barnet’s court, for which there are records dating back at least to the 1750s, show this clearly.

All images ©UCL/EPSRC Adaptable Suburbs project

The Lunch Hour lecture can be viewed on Youtube here: .

Further Reading

Griffiths S., Vaughan L., Haklay M., and Jones C. E. (2008) The Sustainable Suburban High Street: Themes and Approaches, Geography Compass, 2, 1155-1188 download this from UCL Discovery

Jones P., Roberts M., and Morris L. (2007) Rediscovering Mixed-Use Streets: The Contribution of Local High Streets to Sustainable Communities. Joseph Rowntree Foundation & Polity Press, London. Download here:

Vaughan L., Jones C. E., Griffiths S., and Haklay M. (2009) The Spatial Signature of Suburban ‘Active’ Centres. In: Daniel Koch, Lars Marcus and Jesper Steen eds Seventh International Space Syntax Symposium Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Stockholm 127:121-127:113 download this from UCL Discovery


South Norwood town centre – traces of routes taken by individuals surveyed in the town centre vicinity in September 2008

The Adaptable Suburbs project has just published a working paper: the outcome of a pilot study on how patterns of walking in and around suburban town centres correspond to their morphology and land use patterns.

Most current research which looks at how planning and urban design can contribute to walkability compares built environment measures such as connectivity, diversity and land use. This working paper contributes to this domain by reporting on a pilot study which used space syntax measures of route choice to analyse self-reported walked routes and planned activities within three outer London suburban neighborhoods. Using a bespoke questionnaire on a wide array of activities coupled with self-reported route traces the study relates the through-movement potential of the street network to the intensity of routes and land use diversity through each of the three areas. Using data on people’s reasons for walking and actual routes, adjusting for differences between different groups of users, the aim was to see whether urban configuration affects patterns of movement in the suburban realm.

The findings show that route availability is associated with increased walking along routes with ‘active’ land uses, notwithstanding the variety of activities taken during a walk. They also reveal clear differences in usage patterns and trip length according to the degree of familiarity with the area as well as the location of physical barriers to walking routes, such as railway lines. Greater use of green spaces is found to be associated with their integration into the spatial network and local inter-visibility. The findings also tentatively suggest that routes with increased network centrality are more likely to be used for multi-purpose trips. The results suggest that improved planning and design can increase walking in an area, leading both to local vitality as well as potentially to the health of individuals.

It can be downloaded free from the project website.

The Adaptable Suburbs project has recently had an article published in the Journal of Space Syntax. The article addresses the question of how the fringes of cities develop spatially at both the local scale of the individual town centre and in relation to the wider urban network. The changing network structure of the street systems of two outer suburban areas of Greater London, Surbiton and South Norwood, are analysed from the 1880s onwards. A temporal reading of the process of urban growth in relation to the historic street network of local centres allows for a nuanced understanding of the way in which cities grow over time. Rather than conceptualising suburban growth as either a seeding of new territories in tabula rasa or a ‘swallowing-up’ of older settlements, the article argues for a measured description of the spatial, social and economic properties of urban grid intensification.

JOSS_article_South Norwood

South Norwood 1880, 1910, 1960 and 2013 (top-left, top-right, bottom-left, bottom-right, respectively), with contemporaneous background mapping and land uses, overlaid with segment angular integration 800 metres. Map scale 1:1500. © Crown Copyright/ database right 2013. An Ordnance Survey/EDINA supplied service.

This research uses digitised historical maps, historical and contemporary land-use data together with space syntax analysis in order to identify historical-morphological parameters of change and continuity in London’s suburban street network from the 1880s. The analysis demonstrates that over the period of time considered there have been distinct stages in the spatial development of the city’s urban fringe. The results show that as London expanded to encircle new territories, the spatial relationships of fringe areas of the city changed markedly as larger scale infrastructure was built and local development intensified, with the effect of reconfiguring the local network of the case study suburbs. However, detailed analysis of the formation of suburban town centres using space syntax also uncovers distinctive and resilient spatial morphologies which have sustained varied modes of land use over time. Drawing on the theory of the urban ‘movement economy’ and our previous research in this area, the article shows how the complex balance of change and continuity realised in the spatial morphology of the suburban high street can be explained by complex scalar mechanisms of adaptability. We argue that these qualities have helped ensure the resilience of historical suburban centres even in the face of radical social change.

Download the article from the Adaptable Suburbs project website here:


The Adaptable Suburb  project is coming to its completion in spring 2014. We are now inviting abstracts for contributions to the project’s closing one-day conference on ‘The past, present and futures of the high street’, on Monday 28th April at UCL.

In addition to our invited speakers, who include Fiona Scott from Gort Scott, Suzanne Hall from LSE and Matthew Carmona from UCL, we are seeking submissions from researchers using empirical evidence and quantitative and/or as qualitative methods to analyse subjects such as social interactions, urban form, and movement flows with regard to the vitality and adaptability of smaller town centres. Upon selection, participants will be invited to submit an unpublished original draft paper of around 6000 words by 21st March 2014 with a view to its consideration for publication in a planned peer-reviewed journal collection and/or an open-access book.

The content should fit one of the three themes of the conference: 1) urban form and spatial network transformations 2) mixed-use and architectural adaptability; 3) everyday sociability. Papers will be pre-circulated amongst speakers to facilitate discussion. There will be time to revise them further after the conference and prior to peer review for publication.

If you are interested in having a paper included in the conference, please send your abstract of 300-400 words to Professor Laura Vaughan  no later than Friday 24 January 2014. You are welcome to contact Laura before that date if you wish to have an informal chat about your submission. If you would rather present an oral presentation and not be considered for publication at this stage, this is an option too.

There is no registration fee for the conference and lunch and drinks will be provided. We are however unable to reimburse expenses for travel and subsistence.

A new report out this week by the RIBA ‘Building Futures’ think-tank provides a vision for a future of an ‘active Third Age’ and the possible impact it might have on the built environment.

Pages from MID_RIBA_Silver_linings_161013_v2

The report’s findings are very much in tune with the work of the Adaptable Suburbs project and indeed the about-to-commence ‘Street Mobility’ project at UCL, which will be researching the impact of ‘community severance’ on older people. (The connection is  not entirely coincidential, as the Street Mobility project’s PI, Dr Jenny Mindell, was an expert advisor on the RIBA’s report).

I highlight here some of the key recommendations of the report:

  • For Housing: the authors maintain that the current ad hoc changes being made to housing to adapt to new social needs (such as extended families living under one roof) demand a revival of the old mansion block housing form. In this way, ideas developed by the co-housing movmeent will enable families to expand within a single unit, sharing facilties and enabling co-dependence between older and younger members of the same family (as well as independence for the individuals within it).
  • This links neatly to the report’s observations regarding the relationship between the home and community. They maintain that this type of home will be rooted in “an increased emphasis on the relationship to nature, inviting the tending of shared gardens and the communal growing of food” – thus extending the private domain into semi-private and semi-public domains with new “multigenerational neighbourliness and wider support network that can open new opportunities to address the spiralling cost of both childcare and elderly care.” This may be a rather optimistic vision, but it is important to note how our own research suggests the importance of a spatial interrelationship between the residential hinterland and the public domain of a neighbourhood; namely, the high street.
  • The report dedicates a whole section to ‘The High Street Revived’, which, we would agree wholeheartedly, highlights how “by their very nature, high streets developed centrally so people could walk to them” and this natural walkability will be increasingly important in a low-carbon future. The report maintains that high streets will no longer be retail focused (in fact, our research shows that they never have been). Instead, they have the potential to incorporate new forms of social and communal functions: hosting local services and supporting functions such as playgrounds next to a local crèche or school, to support the daily presence of old and young and with the added benefits that intergenerational contact can provide.
  • The revival of the high street as a social hub means – the report states – that we can start to see its embedded potential to be a place for small businesses to start up, for new services (such as 3-D printing) to be provided, for libraries to be used as lifelong learning facilities and so on. Indeed – I would argue – the high street is envisioned as the heart of a new form of many of the small-scale non-domestic uses that we have observed in our surveys of London’s land uses over the past 150 years.


This is the tenth and last of a series of blogs devised by the Adaptable Suburbs project team to note some of the preliminary findings of the project.


10. The high street is not just a street

The above image taken in one of our suburban cases illustrates the notion of scale of analysis introduced in last week’s blog. Here we have a stretch of road that in one direction constitutes ‘Church Street’ – clearly a place serving a local community that was probably originally organised both socially and spatially around the church timetable when the street was first named. The same stretch of road becomes the London Road when facing in the opposite direction. When you consider its purpose and the way it which it connects onwards to the distant reaches of the city centre, you can see how a single road alignment can create more than one domain of activity and bring together people of different sorts – locals and strangers alike – within a single place.

In a recent article I wrote with the historian Anne Kershen*, we described the way in which London’s East End has managed to serve as a sort of immigrant processing machine, given that it created the setting for newcomers to the area to simultaneously create local networks of self-support and make connections to people from outside of the area. They did this through transactions that took place on the main roads of the area, that connected well to the heart of London’s economy. In a similar fashion we now have evidence to show from our space syntax analysis of the spatial evolution of our outer London cases over the past 150 years that they benefited from strategic locations within London’s street network in a way that enabled them to serve several markets at the same time.


South Norwood town centre – all non-residential activity. Underlying map Ordnance Survey Crown copyright 2007. White polygons represent UK government town centre statistical boundaries. The street sections are coloured in a range of red-blue, showing through-movement potential for a model of all streets in London (left) and just within a distance of 800 metres (right)

The image above shows the results of space syntax analysis that measures the through-movement accessibility of South Norwood, a suburb in south-east London. At radius-n (left): the model takes account of all streets within London. It shows how the centre has important links at the larger urban scale. At radius-800m (right): the model takes account of all streets at a distance approximating a ten-minute walk into the surrounding residential area. Whilst the Smith Ltd. builder’s yard is located on a street that is accessible for journeys of around 400 metres, serving local needs, Emerton’s the ironmonger (see image below) is on a route prominent on the 800 metre network, whilst the main road linking onwards into central London is most prominent when you analyse the network to take account of all streets in London within the M25.


Image: Emerton’s the ironmonger, gardening supplies and DIY store – Station Road, South Norwood

In fact, the latest findings from our analysis, which we hope to present at the next Space Syntax Symposium this autumn, also show that analysis of network properties of choice betweenness (which forecasts movement through an area) and integration (which forecasts movement to an area) suggests that the peak non-domestic activities in our suburban cases are located where the two sorts of movement flows best overlap within the same street segment. We conclude that: the high street is not just a street; nor is the suburban town centre just for locals.

* Kershen, A.J., and L. Vaughan. 2013. There was a Priest, a Rabbi and an Imam…: an analysis of urban space and religious practice in London’s East End, 1685-2010. Material Religion 9 (1):10-35. Download here:

This is the ninth in a series of blogs devised by the Adaptable Suburbs project team to note some of the preliminary findings of the project.

blog7_networkpotential_retailImage showing network betweenness centrality (the space syntax measure of choice) for London in a warm-to-cold colour range, with a greyscale density surface of all retail activity based on postcode data

9. The high street is formed and shaped over time

Space Syntax analysis of retail activity across the M25 region of London highlights its essentially linear distribution (top figure). At this regional scale, larger centres tend to be represented as highly integrated ‘attractors’, that is, destinations where one might choose to move to and around; smaller centres, by contrast, are more likely to be represented as places where one might pass through en route to somewhere else; yet at a more local level they too serve as destinations. In sustaining activity across different scales, smaller centres are every bit as complex as larger centres. Patterns of activities evident when considering the wider area are not always repeated locally. Retail activity, for example, is not always found on the most accessible routes locally and tends to be intermingled with other uses.

blog9 (2) Image shows Loughton, a suburban centre in north-east London in its evolution from 1880 onwards (today’s peak retail centre is highlighted with the jagged black line in the centre of each map). The network accessibility of the centre is coloured up in a range from red to blue and overlaid with building footprints for each period.

As soon as you start to consider the town centre in a broader sense: the high street set within the network of surrounding streets containing lower levels of activity, it becomes evident that different sorts of transactions are distributed according to a spatial logic of its own. In this way, different parts of the town centre are located on streets that are prominent at different scales of connectivity.

This variation of scales is arguably part of the natural evolution of town centres, which allows for different functions, such as uses that relate to local transacitons, to co-exist by being positioned facing each other, with different functions serving people from elsewehere, situated in positions that take advantage of wider-scale routes. Having similar functions facing each other in a form of domino-like symmetry affirms the character of the place – as MacCormac (1996) has suggested [MacCormac, R., 1996. An Anatomy of London. Built Environment 22 (4), 306-311]. In this way ‘local transactions’ such as pubs can blend with ‘foreign transactions’ such as warehousing, without putting the latter functions in remote locations (see section of Goad map below). If we consider last week’s blog, this balance and articulation of urban network connections adds to the adaptability of the city to host differing land-use patterns through time. As I have written elsewhere*, in the past even at the building scale, shifts in the way buildings were used allowed industry, dwellings and entertainment to be juxtaposed turn-by-turn around the urban block.

Goad_314_1890_sectionSection of Goad Fire Insurance plan,  Vol. 11, sheet 314, May 1990. ©Landmark Information Group Ltd. The letter symbols on the buildings denote dwelling (D), shop (S), tenements (TEN) and etc.

Further reading: * Vaughan, Laura. 2013. Is the future of cities the same as their past? Urban Pamphleteer #1: Future and Smart Cities 1:20-22. Download: Urban Pamphleteer #1 (pdf)


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