10 things you might not know about high streets: 7. The high street’s human capital is bound up in its sustainability

May 16, 2013

This is the seventh 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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The Alfred Dunhill leather factory and pipe workshop in Walthamstow (image: http://www.permanentstyle.co.uk/2010/04/factory-visit-alfred-dunhill.html

7. The high street’s human capital is bound up in its sustainability

The image above shows the Alfred Dunhill leather factory in Walthamstow, highlighting a feature that we have repeatedly encountered in our roaming around London’s outer suburbs, that craftsmanship is strongly embedded in place. This was a fact pointed out by Fiona Scott from Gort Scott in her presentation in December last year to the ‘Geography of the Economy’ session at the London High Streets network [see Pecha Kucha presentation here]. She pointed out that businesses such as the Dunhill Pipe Factory in Blackhorse Lane, an industrial area that is slowly emerging into a successful high street location has challenged perceptions that there’s not much going on the suburbs. On the contrary, there are many small-scale industrial, craft and design workshops and factories which require skilled labour. Such labour is difficult to recruit and vital to retain, particularly for a company that has a longstanding presence in an area, since they will have invested in its human capital – people who are unlikely to be willing or able to commute elsewhere. Demolition of a seemingly messy collection of old industrial buildings might be the death-knell not only of a company, but of its local, in some cases highly skilled, workforce.

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Entrance to printworks, previously forge, in alley behind Barnet high street

This links back to the project’s research, which has identified untapped potential for economic sustainability in smaller town centres. A street network that enables trips of a variety of lengths to and through the centre, as well as buildings and layouts that can be adapted to different uses, contributes to the success of both national and local businesses. Such enterprises employ local people, particularly low-skilled workers who cannot afford to travel further, as well as highly skilled workers who, due to their family situation, need to work close to home. Such conditions further contribute to a location’s environmental sustainability by reducing the number and length of car journeys, and social sustainability through the ability of community activities to take place in conveniently situated local buildings such as pubs, converted church halls and cinemas and through the everyday interactions that a mixing of different sorts of people in and around a local centre engender.

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“Mutuality and resonance, in their many forms, are the stuff of most human exchange”: Borehamwood market

Social sustainability and vibrancy arise in urban and building layouts that can support a wide range of activities throughout the day and the week. Suburban centres which provide plenty of different activities encourage the presence of a diverse mix of people, coming from a variety of distances, all with different reasons for using the centre. The result is ‘mutuality and resonance’ in the suburban town centre:

Mutuality and resonance, in their many forms, are the stuff of most human exchange. We chat pleasantly about the weather, share a joke we heard with our hairdresser, pass an hour over coffee gossiping with a friend.  These mostly unremarkable events soon fade into the dustbin of memory, yet without them life is apt to feel empty and cold.” (From The Space between Us: Exploring the Dimensions of Human Relationships. R. Josselson, 1996:  p. 152. – via Wendy Olsen).

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