Analysing High Street Performance

March 6, 2012

Church, High Street Barnet @ Adaptable Suburbs project, UCL

I’ve been reading the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills report ‘Understanding High Street Performance‘, kindly forwarded to me by http://www.rudi.net/. It is pleasing to see that the report highlights many of the criticisms laid out in our previous publications, particularly ‘Do the suburbs exist? and ‘The sustainable suburban high street: a review of themes and approaches.’ Notably:

"Town centres and high streets are characterised by considerable diversity and complexity, in terms of scale, geography and catchment, function and form… a result, the way in which they are affected by and respond to change is diverse and varied." We agree with this reading and it is hoped that our analysis of the changing spatial configuration of London’s outer suburbs will allow us to control for the contribution of urban form in the way in which town centres adapt to change.

There is limited evidence analysing whether high street performance influences socio-economic indicators… This is a gap in the evidence that might be addressed through primary research…. The data available to quantify economic performance/health of the high street are pertinent to town centre level (or above) but rarely below – even in local studies. In the case of the latter, it is rare to find historical performance comparisons" These are both gaps we hope to address in our own spatial/social/economic analysis of change over time. Most interestingly the report states that diversity can indicate the "resilience and adaptability" of the place. This is very much at the heart of what we’re investigating; namely, what makes for this resilience and adaptability: to what extent do built form and urban configuration contribute to these factors.

The common criticism of the homogenisation of the high street is mentioned here too. Interestingly the report argues for the importance of the high street of the future as a "multifunctional destination, with retail playing a part alongside community, public service, leisure, cultural and civic uses. The distinction is that under this vision of the high street, it serves a social function with retail supporting social uses, drawing on the idea of a ‘21st century agora’". This is an idea we have commented about before and we suggest that in fact it isn’t necessarily new. The notion that high streets are retail dependent is easily refuted by data which show that retail has never been more than 30% of town centre activity. In fact, it could be argued that retail is dependent on all the other land uses rather than vice versa. The report actually confirms previous findings on interdependence, stating that "non-commercial activity is missing from current assessments of high street activity. The presence of a Citizen’s Advice Bureau or library can be as important in drawing footfall as a café or fashion store; the use of buildings as student accommodation could indicate a viable market in convenience shopping." Absolutely.

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