High Streets as sociable ‘places’ as well as ‘links’

May 1, 2007

Recently published findings from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation – The contribution of local high streets to sustainable communities – are relevant to our research. The study, which looked at three English mixed use high streets, found that the high streets were “important public spaces, and many types of informal activity took place on them”. It found that the local population was strongly present on its local high street and that a significant proportion came on foot or by public transport (although with regard to the latter, it should be noted that the cases studied here were more urban than our prospective set of 20 cases – the London case is Upper Tooting Road/Mitcham Road). The study also found that the “‘link’ function of all three locations was very important… [with] significant numbers of pedestrians ‘just passing through’… [although] the main movements of pedestrians were associated with ‘place’- related activities”.

These findings bolster our hypothesis that the spatial integration of suburban high streets is likely to be a contributory factor in their success as places. However the report also flags the potential conflict between high vehicular traffic high streets and their ability to accommodate high flows of pedestrian traffic comfortably. This is something we should take note of in our own research.

Another recent study of social interactions in Aylesbury throughout a single year, Social interactions in urban public places, finds public space being used differently by different age groups. It found that a (perhaps over-designed or poorly designed) new ‘traditional village community’ space was not well used, and had been taken over by anti-social activity; whilst the older social housing estate was well used by all groups throughout the day. In general: “people who would not otherwise routinely share space could do so in the town centre.” One of the key conclusions is that: “the effect of all social groups being visible within civic public spaces, including people of different ages, class, cultures or ethnicities, goes some way to enabling everyone – children and young people in particular – to observe and perhaps accept difference.” The ability of design to enable co-presence and accommodate different age groups (my translation of ‘visible’ in this context) will be one of the factors we should consider when measuring sociability in our case-studies.

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One Response to “High Streets as sociable ‘places’ as well as ‘links’”

  1. SG Says:

    Indirectly related but worth mentioning in this context is Jonathan Meade’s opinion piece in the Independent on Sunday (29/4/7 – no web-link). He argues that the current emphasis on urban regeneration through spectacular buildings and the associated promotion of designer urban living in regenerated areas risks pushing inner city deprivation ‘beyond the ringroad’ in a Parisian manner. He suggests that the traditional suburban vitality of the anglo-American model of urban growth may be undermined by this process. This proposition has two implications for the debate: firstly, the importance of understanding the dynamics ‘everyday’ living environments (such as suburban town centres), and secondly, the question of social sustainability in the suburbs in relation to denser urban areas that have undergone regeneration. To the extent that many inner city areas have become residences for the relatively affluent (which is questionable), the role of the suburb as a ‘space of linkage’ between different social groups may become enhanced. Discuss….


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