Industrious Suburbs

December 13, 2015

One of the many clichés we have battled against in the Adaptable Suburbs project is that the high street is dependent on retail for its survival. In fact, a growing body of evidence is emerging that shows that town centres that are less reliant on retail are better able to weather fluctuations in the economy (see blog post on The Great British High Street). Research undertaken by Gort Scott for the Greater London Authority shows that it is the ‘thick crust’ of workshops, offices, churches and small industry that bolsters the dozens of high streets around London and is an important (and undervalued) aspect of smaller town centres (see chapter by Fiona Scott in the recently published Suburban Urbanities).





Site of Werndee Hall, South Norwood in 1890, 1910, 1960 and today. Source: © Crown Copyright and Landmark Information Group Limited (2013). All rights reserved 2013.

This brings me to the topic of today’s blog post: H. Tinsley and Co. Ltd., based at Werndee Hall, South Norwood, London. One of the methods we used in our Adaptable Suburbs project analysis was to take the business directories for the four periods studied (1890, 1910, 1960 and 2013) and geocode each of the addresses in our geographical information systems (namely, take each of the buildings within our four case studies, redraw it, then encode the drawn building with its land use at the time). When I was checking through the map for South Norwood, I discovered an industrial activity labelled as ‘Werndee Hall’ situated on this back street of South Norwood. Despite its modest location, the University of Aberdeen collection maintains that over time Tinsley and Co. “became one of the places to go for high precision electrical test equipment”.

H. Tinsley: Galvanometer. Image from the University of Aberdeen’s Natural Philosophy Collection.

The City of London photo collection shows Werndee Hall was a significant building. Previously a private residence, when Tinsley acquired the building in 1917, his was already an established firm, founded in 1904 as Messrs Tinsley and Co., telegraph and electrical engineers. The firm continued to produce sensitive electrical communications equipment over the course of much of the 20th century . But why there? I had an interesting twitter exchange on this recently, and one suggestion was that new firms opened in ‘the sticks’ due to there being room to expand on relatively cheap land, which is the reason that many start-ups in Cambridge tend to be in more remote areas. I believe we can show evidence for some additional reasons.

Werndee Hall © City of London

If we have a look at the space syntax analysis of accessibility in South Norwood, taking account of a large area around the town centre (a 6km area in fact), modelled for network-wide ‘choice’ (similar to the standard network science measure of ‘betweenness’, or how likely is any given street segment to be used from anywhere to anywhere within a given distance) we find that the site of the company (the large purple-coloured building to the south of the map), although situated away from the accessible core of the town centre (the warmest coloured lines in the spectrum), is still within reach of the well-connected Portland Road. Couple to this the high rate of land use diversity and a reasonably-sized population, bearing in mind the quite dense set of dwellings in the area, you can see that Mr Tinsley was able to call upon a good number of local workers, to resources & suppliers both locally and within a wider ambit of the suburb. Indeed, Liane Lang has found evidence to the fact that Tinsley’s provided employment for local people both in the building and working from home.

Space syntax network analysis of South Norwood and environs, showing radius n Choice

Fiona Scott and colleagues have shown how important it is to consider the ecology of skilled work in such instances. She writes how once an industry has established a skilled, trained workforce, particularly if it is situated outside of the city centre, it creates a nexus of valuable jobs and skills which cannot be easily transplanted. The contribution of local industry to the local economy is another vital aspect of their wider contribution. Having local employment creates a positive feedback with the town centre, generating increased activity on the high street.

Tinsley closed its doors in 1960 and Werndee Hall itself was demolished at the end of the last century, with Shinners Close – a collection of dwellings in a cul-de-sac built on the site. The workforce itself has dispersed. While I hesitate to be nostalgic about this once-great firm, it is clear to me that having production in such a minor suburban location contributed something quite essential to the life of the place. Small industry has – and can – play an important part in suburbs and we would do well to assess its true value.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Spatial Character in Harrow

January 14, 2011

In my attempts to meet the team in Harrow, I like another colleague happened to be slightly delayed in my arrival. Upon reaching the station I called the awaiting group who told me their location in a café by the war memorial. Seeing the high street I instinctively knew I had one of two directions to walk in. Hoping it was the right direction I commenced walking and asked passers-by where the War memorial was. The first three people did not know for sure saying that ‘I’ve not lived in the area long’ or ‘well there’s a thing with a clock on, that might be it?’. My eventual informant was a young man who described the memorial to me as ‘that thing across from Iceland’.

What was interesting about this beginning to the day was the way in which local people used points of reference with the supermarkets of Iceland and Tesco being used as landmarks. Is the way we find our way around changing streetscapes? Are these the sites of most common shared use and therefore most familiar to everyone?

It was questioned whether the other colleague was familiar with the form of the ‘British high street’ hailed as he does from the US. What is the form of the British suburb? Is it the linear high street or the shopping centre? What does each of these provide in terms of sense of space, local and movement? What are the implications of each form in terms of the adaptability of the area, the economic sustainability and the marketability? Is the chain store, which dominates the mall, a sign of economic prosperity in an area or a loss of character? What do people want from their suburb, their high street or their mall? Is this clone town Britain or the division of service provision allowing greater choice?

It was noticeable in Harrow that the main location of the shops was the artery called the High Street that comes from and re-joins the A409. It is this spatial signature (linear high street) and it’s associated mixed use and potential adaptability that stood out for me as we walked around. Both St Ann’s and St George’s shopping centres displayed alternative shopping environments as we approached Harrow-on-the-Hill station and contained more chain stores. Issues that arise in thinking here are those of the character of a place and how that is associated to the spatial signature of that place. How is that spatial signature linked to adaptability and the sorts of activities (commercial and non-commercial) that occupy different sorts of spaces. Perhaps bloggers can walk around their local area and see how they feel about these spatial patterns, the character of places and changes in these.

References & Links
• An interesting link on the act of going for a stroll through an area in order to get to football match. Football teams seem to represent a community, the act of going to an away game (one I’m familiar with as a Blackburn Rovers fan) is also an act of going to see another community. If the spatial location of the end point of the stroll changes then the nature of the cultural performance changes.

• Paper on spatial signatures of suburban town centres.
Vaughan, L. and Jones, C.E. and Griffiths, S. and Haklay, M. (2010) The spatial signature of suburban town centres. The Journal of Space Syntax, 1 (1). pp. 77-91.

• The sustainable high street
Griffiths, S. and Vaughan, L. and Haklay, M. and Jones, C.E. (2008) The sustainable suburban high street: a review of themes and approaches. Geography Compass, 2 (4). pp. 1155-1188.

I note that the latest issue of the local magazine for the commuter village of Radlett features a photograph of a butcher’s shop c. 1914 at no. 1, Upper Station Road (picture below). A quick check on the map reveals that the retail extents of the village have shrunk since that date and are mainly confined to the main road: Watling Street. Coincidentally, the same post brought a flyer from the local deli-cum-cafe, Yummies – also on Watling Street – which is now extending its opening hours on Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays till around 10pm, presumably to accommodate the differing patterns of consumption that prevail today. It would be redundant to wonder if the good burghers of Radlett of 100 years would recognise it today.

I’ve just been browsing round the website of the Highrise series called Out My Window, recommended by a colleague in Canada, Kwende Kefentse. The website, by Katerina Cizek, shows how different cultures are played out in high-rise buildings around the world.

The way in which individuals negotiate the interior and exterior spaces of the suburban setting will be an important topic in the new project as we bring in the domestic and anthropological perspectives to our work.


High Street London

September 3, 2010

It’s interesting to read the recent  ‘High Street London‘ report by Gore Scott and UCL for Design for London. It is clear that there is a lot of synergy between their findings and our own work (which is indeed copiously cited there). In particular, they have found that:

  • London’s high streets have potential that is “multiplied by the presence of existing infrastructure and already well-established communities; in-built advantages that many less connected brownfield sites do not possess.”
  • They repeatedly point to the complexity, diversity and adaptability of the suburbs.
  • The high street is seen as a place of opportunity too, for amongst other things for development, for start-up businesses and for their potential for regeneration.
  • Our conception of the wider, ‘active’ town centre as opposed to the typically narrow conception of the high street is demonstrated in the report’s appendix, in which analysis of the extent of mixed-use activity beyond the town centre boundary is demonstrated (see ‘Appendix E: Street and Block mapping’).
  • In particular, their reference to the “bewildering array of activities that feed off each other and the high streets” (page 8 of main report) very much lies at the heart of our own interest in the interrelationship between all non-residential activities.
  • Likewise, it is pleasing to see how adaptability is tied in with the notion of the need of continuity (of architectural integrity) to allow for change (page 8 again).

I was amused to see a Borehamwood business feature in a half-page ad for HSBC in Saturday’s Telegraph. Notably, the advertisers have plumped for Borehamwood to be a town, when it is equally frequently cited as a suburb (in my own article on the subject, I hedged my bets).

Borehamwood: town or suburb?