10 things you might not know about high streets: 8. High street diversity can lead to adaptability

May 23, 2013

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

blog8_barnetlanduses_2008

Map of land uses around High Barnet town centre 2008. © Adaptable Suburbs project

8. High street diversity can lead to adaptability

The image above of the variety of land uses around High Barnet town centre belies the common criticism of the ongoing homogenisation of the high street. Indeed, our working definition of diversity in the context of the suburban town centre is the presence of a large number of different land uses serving a variety of people. We propose that diversity is a sign that a centre is inherently adaptable, since it has evidently adapated to change and weathered the dramatic social and economic upheavals of the past 150 years.

If this is correct, it calls for new measures for success rather than simply counting retail footfall or office rental values – or indeed how smart they are. Instead, town centres can measure their success by the degree to which they change swiftly and ‘smartly’. As Alex Lifschutz has stated (Blueprint, June 2007): cities and buildings need to be made of much more general, simpler ingredients; an evolving fabric easily capable of change that is able to respond… to needs and to become a platform of diversity”, with a “degree of redundancy”.

The illustration below is a good example of this sort of adapability. Land use changes will involve changes in morphology, but the generic relationship between the buildings in this case – larger buildings facing the main road served by smaller buildings behind them – hasn’t changed, despite the long passage of time since they were first constructed.

Blog8_Conduit Mews

Conduit Mews, Westminster, London. Image © Danny Robinson http://www.yourlocalweb.co.uk/greater-london/city-of-westminster/paddington/pictures/page2/

Having a mix of smaller and larger buildings allows for a mix of smaller and large businesses as well as the array of activities that necessarily feed off each other within a town centre. This is why we study high streets within their wider context: land uses within a catchment of up to a kilometre away and built form and network connectivity within a radius of three kilometres. By taking account of the larger spatial ecology, we can understand the full extent of the interconnected relationships between land uses and the people who serve and use them. As Richard MacCormac has said: buildings and streets are “like coral reefs that are re-inhabited over and over again [in a recurring pattern. So,] eighteenth-century-city large houses on primary streets were inhabited by high-income families and the mews behind serviced them. Today the houses might be offices with the mews inhabited by businesses selling services – commercial or professional – like photocopying, printing or sandwich bars to the primary users.” [MacCormac, R., 1996. An Anatomy of London. Built Environment 22 (4), 306-311.]

Next week: more on network connectivity.

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