10 things you might not know about high streets: 3. The high street is not just for retail… and never has been

April 19, 2013

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


Goad shopping map for Surbiton high street and environs recorded in 1968. Note the number of vacant properties.

3. The high street is not just for retail
The constant lament about the supposed ‘death’ of the high street inevitably focuses on shop closures, but such a focus overlooks the importance of other town centres uses in contributing to the life and success of town centres.


Histogram of all land uses within the Surbiton business directories of 1875, 1915, 1956 and observed on the ground in 2013. An identical survey area was used for all four periods. ‘Third Spaces’ refers to cafes, pubs and similar non-work and non-home functions.

The above analysis takes all ground floor land uses covered by the business directoryof 1875 and then compares all non-residential activity within the same area through subsequent periods: 1915, 1956 and today. The astonishing finding is that retail was never a majority activity, even in the supposed heyday of the 1950s. This points to our project’s proposition – that there is a necessary interdependence between retail and other town centre activities: community services, manufacturing, offices and commerce and manufacturing, as well as cafes and other ‘third space’ activities – all of which collectively contribute to the vitality of town centres.


M. Perkins & Son Ltd. manufacturers and wholesalers of fabrics and trimmings’ Surbiton factory in the 1950s (from http://www.mperkins.com/history.html)

In a recent report by the UK government Department for Business, Innovation and Skills on Understanding High Street Performance, (who by the way highlight the lack of historic performance comparisons, although I suspect they don’t mean comparisons going back 150 years) argue for a ‘21st century agora’, where the high street is to become a “multifunctional destination, with retail playing a part alongside community, public service, leisure, cultural and civic uses.” The report affirms our project’s 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.” This is undoubtedly true. The key point here is the multi-functionality: resilience will be much greater if a centre is not reliant on just one form of activity.

Alsford Timber: on the junction of St Mark’s Hill and Adelaide Road.© Copyright Hugh Venables and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence. Source: http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/3337344.

But our argument is for reversing the thinking further still: the report overlooks a single function that has always been present in town centres of the size we’re studying, namely production, or manufacturing (depicted in the 1950s photo further above) . Now, I know that we have many fewer factories of this sort today, but the facts speak for themselves: different forms of production, whether the timber yard at the junction of St Mark’s Hill and Adelaide Road, or the jam producer working at home and selling at the farmers’ market, are both forms of local production that have contributed to the economy and social life of suburbs both in the past and in the present. Whilst it it true to say that small-scale producers selling out of their premises was a larger proportion of land uses (see the relatively large amount of lavender colour in the histogram for 1875 and 1915, there is still a proportion of such activities today). Whether the planned easing of use classes is likely to encourage such functions in the future is a point worth considering. We lose this vital component of town centre activity at our peril as I will explain further in a forthcoming blog.



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