10 things you might not know about high streets: 4. The high street means different things to different people

April 26, 2013

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

The Lamb Inn, Surbiton © Anthony Falla http://www.flickr.com/photos/anthonyfalla/6531508447/

The Lamb Inn, Surbiton © Anthony Falla http://www.flickr.com/photos/anthonyfalla/6531508447/

4. The high street means different things to different people

The planner or architect’s view of high streets tends to focus on its central, high volume activities – such as shops and offices, transport links and cafes – and to overlook the fact that the people using high streets will have varied perspectives on how the place fits into their daily lives.

blog4_M's_map_of_SurbitonA child’s view of her high street: see sketch – left – drawn by one respondent to our ethnographic study of Surbiton, shows the location of home, swings, hill, the park, nursery, sandpit and two shops of particular importance to her. ‘The Lamb’ pub (location of the mapping exercise) and home are noted on the far right of the sketch at the end of the street line. The child’s perspective shows how the scale of the area encompasses small and happy spaces. Passing people on her daily forays around the area are apparently central to her reading of what Surbiton means to her (when drawing the sketch and describing all the features she was drawing she mentioned to the Adaptable Suburbs’ ethnographer how they always pop into ‘Anne’s shop’).

Both this sketch and the ones below point to an important aspect of high streets: there is an inevitable risk of seeing them as central to the lives of their surrounding inhabitants, but the reality is that the relationship between centre and hinterland is much more complicated than a neat map would suggest.

Consider the two maps drawn in the same exercise by adults who live/work in Surbiton. In both cases the sketches were drawn first or very early in the interview, which explored their feelings about their locality as part of an ongoing ethnography of the Adaptable Suburbs project cases.They show the river and only a few key and frequently used (rather than busy or well connected) roads dotted with frequent or memorable landmarks. Both show the train as an exit: indicating that in this case they think of their surroundings as a zone around a home. People spoke of feeling/relating differently to the centre of nearby Kingston than they do to Surbiton.

blog4_H's_map blog4_Map of My Surbiton

The high street is there for those who need it and those that choose to live a more suburban way of life can dip in and out of town life as suits them, whilst those who prefer to lead a more anonymous lifestyle can opt out of such activities.

The high street itself is actually the edge of somewhere else once you take account of its relationship to nearby centres. For example, you might only pass through Surbiton en route to the university at Kingston (raising the question to what extent is it a place that draws you to wander beyond the train station once you’ve reached it). The high street itself might be on the edge of someone’s life-world, because their daily journey to the post office or school comes from one particular direction (raising the question of the impact of railway lines in severing town centres into two, as is the case in South Norwood and Surbiton). It goes without saying that none of the sketches have north at the top. Such sketches, coupled with the hour-long interview with the ethnographer together constitute ‘thick descriptions’* of people’s experiences of their surroundings, rather than singular representations of a place in time, as in a standard OS map.

* Geertz, Clifford. 1973. Thick description: toward an interpretive theory of culture. Chapter 1 in: The interpretation of cultures: selected essays, edited by C. Geertz. New York: Basic Books.

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