Butcher, Baker, Candlestick Maker – notes from a UCL Lunch Hour lecture

February 17, 2014

Last week the Adaptable Suburbs project had the opportunity of speaking about its work at UCL’s Lunch Hour Lectures series.

Much of the content of our series of blogs: ’10 Things you might not know about high streets’ was recapped here. Of particular interest were the comments and questions from the audience, which can be taken to reflect what’s on the mind of people thinking about the future high streets. These were as follows:

Local networks

The first point related to the Transition Town movement. An audience member pointed out that grass root activism has tremendous importance in enlivening high streets. Initiatives such as local growing of crops add layers of connections to the local community. Interestingly, she mentioned the Kentish Town based movement, which, coincidentally (or not) has had some considerable success in starting a web-based cultural news site that has started to publish a monthly print edition: The Kentishtowner. I wonder if this a reversal of the trend of papers moving to online-only editions.

High streets: serving as both link and place

The second question related to transport and asked whether busy transport conduits have an impact on how high streets develop. Jones et al’s research on ‘mixed use streets’ for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation is relevant here. The authors argue that the principles of modernist planning served to undermine the characteristic mix of the traditional high street by deploying large, isolated blocks to separate buildings from streets, traffic from pedestrians and different land uses from each other. It is evident that traffic comes to play a part iwhen the high street’s role as a place in its own right as well as a link within a regional movement system, comes into conflict with its being an important transit route. In extreme cases, high traffic volumes can start to sever the two sides of a high street into two. Indeed, this is the topic of enquiry in the new Street Mobility and Network Accessibility project recently started at UCL[1].

Impact of online shopping

One of the questions was about internet shopping, asking whether large online sites constituted a threat to high streets, or will they survive alongside them? It was interesting to hear from the audience a couple of examples where internet shopping is actually creating new physical realities on high streets. ‘Shop and Drop’ sites, which allow people to order online and then collect from a town centre location mean that community functions such as libraries (for example in London’s Shepherds Bush) or indeed independent shops, can benefit from additional footfall. Local distributors working from a small van on behalf of online retailers and online retailers using internet data analysis to work out where to locate distribution depot locations all suggest that – putting aside that shopping is not the only aspect of high streets – online shopping may create new realities on the high street. Indeed, with collection of deliveries by individuals needing to take place after work hours, only time will tell whether new activities that take advantage of early evening footfall will emerge on local high streets.

Residential presence in the high street

The significance and change in residential uses in the high street has, as an audience member commented, flowed up and down (and indeed our data show this, as can be seen in the significant amount of unclassified (mostly residential) land uses that can be seen on the maps shown during the lecture. The question raised was regarding the importance of residential buildings to the vitality of high street. The response made during the lecture was that despite the pressures to densify residences in town centres, it is vital that non-domestic land uses are not diluted beyond a certain point. Structures such as messy workshops – especially those typically located just behind high streets – can seem ripe for conversion to residential use, but they serve a vital need in providing space for new businesses to start up at low risk and with the benefit of adjacency to the functions and footfall that the high street provides. The businesses themselves provide additional footfall as well as, in the long run, local employment

As the example of South Norwood’s Portland Road has shown, when one side of the high street is allowed to convert to residential uses, the outcome is that the opposite side suffers. The key to successful residential/non-domestic mixing can be seen in places like Chipping (High) Barnet, where footpaths connect between the high street and its hinterland. Residential uses need to be accessible to the high street. If they are to be built on the high street itself, it seem evident that this has to be in locations at the farthest reaches of the peak activity.

Portland Road, South Norwood

Indeed we commented on this matter following the interim consultation by DCLG on “The Future of High Streets” in July 2013, which suggested a change in UK government policy to allow empty properties on the high street to contain a wide range of new uses, including increasing "housing on the high street". We wrote to Building Design at the time that “we would make a plea to take the decision to increase housing with caution: losing the spatial continuity of ‘live’ uses on either side of a street has the potential outcome of allowing it to wither over time.”

Chipping Barnet Magistrates Court. Image June 2008 (built c. 1916 now closed)

Community Services

The last question related to the importance of community services to high streets. This is unquestionably a vital aspect of what we’ve termed as the ‘active’ town centre, encompassing the non-domestic land uses that collectively populate the surroundings of high streets and, given sufficient spatial connectivity, generate additional trips to and through them. The example given during the Q&A was of the magistrates court, which by virtue of its situation at the heart of local communities, populates the area with visitors and employees of the court system.

Chipping Barnet Magistrates Court c. 1960. © Crown Copyright/database right 2013. An Ordnance Survey/EDINA supplied service.

Our research has shown that notwithstanding the fluctuation between the proportions of different types of land uses, there is a steady state of each of the five main groups of land uses, as shown in the graph below: throughout the past 135 years community services have always been between 10-20% of all land uses within the high street environs of the four cases we’ve studied in detail (Barnet, Surbiton, South Norwood and Loughton). It seems self-evident that to maintain the stability of this ecosystem of interdependent activities we must take care to not lose this balance.

High Barnet land uses: proportions over time for an identical comparative area

As an aside to close this blog, it’s important to note that notwithstanding the role of magistrates courts in providing local justice, they also serve (and have always served) additional administrative functions, such issuing of licenses, warrants and summonses, the taking of oaths and approval of parish rates. Chipping Barnet’s court, for which there are records dating back at least to the 1750s, show this clearly.

All images ©UCL/EPSRC Adaptable Suburbs project

The Lunch Hour lecture can be viewed on Youtube here: .

Further Reading

Griffiths S., Vaughan L., Haklay M., and Jones C. E. (2008) The Sustainable Suburban High Street: Themes and Approaches, Geography Compass, 2, 1155-1188 download this from UCL Discovery

Jones P., Roberts M., and Morris L. (2007) Rediscovering Mixed-Use Streets: The Contribution of Local High Streets to Sustainable Communities. Joseph Rowntree Foundation & Polity Press, London. Download here: http://www.jrf.org.uk/sites/files/jrf/2018-mixed-use-streets.pdf.

Vaughan L., Jones C. E., Griffiths S., and Haklay M. (2009) The Spatial Signature of Suburban ‘Active’ Centres. In: Daniel Koch, Lars Marcus and Jesper Steen eds Seventh International Space Syntax Symposium Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Stockholm 127:121-127:113 download this from UCL Discovery

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