10 things you might not know about high streets: 5. The high street depends on the accessibility of its hinterland

May 2, 2013

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

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5. The high street depends on the accessibility of its hinterland

The image above shows the pathways of High Barnet, or as it was known in the past, Chipping Barnet. We are situated on the high street, looking through one of the little pathways that connects it firstly to the centre’s backyard activities – situated in a series of courtyards running parallel to the main  – and then, if we look deeper into the image (see zoom-in below) into the residential hinterland itself.

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Now, imagine yourself, if you will, walking down that pathway. How many people are you likely to pass in the few minutes that take you from the thronging high street to the quiet (cliché alert) leafy streets that lie behind it?

The answer is at least half a dozen. The number is not trivial, as it might first seem to readers used to studying city centre locations. This steady state of movement, of people coming in on foot to use to use the centre on a daily basis to pass the time of day, to be sociable makes it vital both economically and socially. And it’s not just residents using the pathways: all those small businesses, workshops, printers, graphic companies, chiropodists, doctors and dentists cumulatively create a low level buzz of vitality that makes this centre, low down on the town centre hierarchy of the city planners, a vital part of the neighbourhood. The business owners benefit from the increased footfall (as well as the access to facilities that they’d otherwise have to obtain from farther afield) and the residents and local workers benefit from a wider array of facilities along with a richer mix of people around the area.

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Frequency distribution of all activities named by people walking in three outer-London town centres on a sample weekday. The majority of town centre inhabitants and visitors don’t shop. Those that do, carry out a wide variety of additional activities.

We have found that where the town centre supports a diverse range of activities it benefits from increased by-product movement, where people do more than the things they came deliberately to do during their visit to the centre. This is not purely an economic benefit. Having people locally helps enliven the town centre throughout the day. We suggest that this is a critical element for sustaining the vitality of suburban and small town centres. The extensive and varied activity in local areas allows for complex routine daily and weekly movement patterns to emerge, so furthering the engagement of individuals with their locality.

Church Street, Rickmansworth contains within it a wide variety of retail and other functions

Church Street, Rickmansworth contains within it a wide variety of retail and other functions

Analysis carried out by the Towards Successful Suburban Town Centres project showed that the twenty smaller town centres studied host a wide variety of land uses including light industry and manufacturing. Church Street, Rickmansworth, for example, has over thirty different categories of business, including agricultural machinery dealers, a builders’ merchant, computer services, food suppliers, pharmaceutical manufacturers, a social club and waste disposal services. This genuinely mixed-use context contrasts with the perception that smaller centres can only sustain local shopping.

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