Defining terms and parameters

February 23, 2007

Following a stimulating first advisory group meeting, I have been reflecting on what we have learned from yesterday’s discussions.

I think we should be more focussed on understanding why London is a case worth studying. In fact, London is probably a special case, due to its size and subsequent cost. Its dynamics have changed and we can no longer view London as a centre with a primarily residential hinterland surrounding it. London has evolved so that new sub-centres have been created. and due to high costs (cost should be viewed both in monetary and travel time terms), people are increasingly preferring to access services closer to home, leading to more demand for locally available high level shops, leisure, culture etc. I would suggest that this leads to the fact that the residential areas embedded in the ‘doughnut’ to which we refer, are probably a hybrid of what people view as classic suburbs (with a predominantly residential activity) and are a new type of suburb, which combines residential activity with leisure, culture, industry, local services and local transport. The degree of dependency that the classic suburb had on the centre has decreased, with many of the non-commuters who live in London’s suburbs travelling into the centre only occasionally.

I feel that the reason there is a lack of understanding what we mean by suburban town centres is that outside of London, it is less likely that such circumstances prevail. Although, I think it is highly likely that in large urban conurbations such as Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham, if such processes have not occurred yet, they will do so in the future.

As for the discussion on the size of the centres we had ‘long listed’. We all agreed after the meeting that we must take account of the advice that the process of using the 1970s and contemporary datasets had led to a disproportionate preponderance of larger centres. We must go back to our initial list that arose out of filtering according to the historical development of suburbia in Greater London (113). I suggest that we then take account of the advice to look at the ‘health check’ lists, but that ultimately we should select a representative sample that includes all the components of the type of suburban town centre in which we are interested: a combination of offices, retail, light industry and cultural provision (from libraries to small theatres). The sample should include cases from all around the ‘doughnut’, in order to obtain a geographical range that includes cases that have been subject to different historical processes (East is very different from West and etc. So all segments of London – NW, SW, NE, SE – and inner edge and outer edge of the doughnut.) We should use broad-brush criteria – size, location, data available over the period. As Nick Falk remarked: we are looking at significant centres; and I would add, of a complexity of activity that reflects their potential for sustainable growth in the future.

Lastly, we should be clear that in selecting our long list for the next year, that we are in this stage simply looking for that set of complex suburban town centres. The definition of which are successful will come out of the analysis. However, our initial definition is that success is a place that withstands change through time.

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