The following is reblogged from the UCL Press blog, where it was posted to celebrate the first anniversary of the press.

Suburban Urbanities is an edited collection that is the culmination of over seven years’ research into the urban form and social logic of metropolitan suburbs. The research considered the factors that contribute to the long-term success of suburban town centres. In order to do this we studied a century’s morphological evolution and land use patterns of twenty outer London suburbs as well as, more generally, how cities IMAGE 4_Scottgrow and take shape over time. The research took a multi-disciplinary approach, integrating urban analysis (using space syntax) with ethnographic studies of people, organisations and places on the one hand, and historical studies of land uses and urban form on the other. Towards the end of our project we sought out a comparative set of examples from the UK and elsewhere around Europe and the Mediterranean. The book takes these examples and organises these into three themes: Suburban Centralities – which has a focus on city-wide transformations, showing that local places are shaped and formed over time according to their accessibility to long-term patterns of human, social and economic networks of activity across scales; High Street Diversity – which has a focus on the high street, the active centre of urban and suburban centres. The last section of the book is called ‘Everyday Sociability’.  In addition to the case studies themselves, the book has a clear agenda, to challenge the perception that urbanity only exists in the city. Opening with a pair of theoretical position pieces, it argues that urbanity exists in a continuum from urban to suburban. When discussing suburban life it is vital to get away from the binary choice between suburban versus urbane. Indeed, we are all suburbanites in one way or another, given that urbanism is a temporal process.

As an early adopter of open access through UCL’s repository, UCL Press seemed like an ideal choice for Suburban Urbanities, given that it is a university press dedicated to full open access. A surprising bonus has been the fast turnaround, from submission in April 2015 to publication in November 2015. At the same time the visual and material quality of both online and print version is excellent – indeed, one of the book’s reviewers commented that it is “a book that looks and feels beautiful”. Most important for me has been the immediate impact of the book. Alongside its thousands of downloads (3750 at last count) in eighty eight countries, it has had impact in all sorts of unexpected places: featuring in The Atlantic in its CityLab blogand an activist in New Zealand has been tweeting excerpts of the book at his local planning authority to raise various policy issues. My hope is that it will continue to resonate far and wide as we continue to battle with the complexity of suburban urbanity in future years.

About the Author

Laura Vaughan is Professor of Urban Form and Society at the Space Syntax Laboratory, Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, and editor of Suburban Urbanities. In addition to her longstanding research into London’s suburban evolution, she has written on many other critical aspects of urbanism today. Follow her on Twitter at @urban_formation.

The Great British High Street

September 12, 2014

2014-09-11 17.23.28Following an interesting seminar yesterday at Transport for London on the Future of the High Street (convened by Professor Peter Jones from UCL and a precursor to a forthcoming conference on “Transforming transport research into policy and practice”), it’s timely to read the useful report published this summer by the a research team at University of Southampton headed by Prof Neil Wrigley & Dr Dionysia Lambiri. The report covers the period of the recent UK recession, which gives a good opportunity to check on town centre health.  The report shows that:

  • Centres which are less reliant on retail have weathered the recent crisis better.
  • Centres in weaker socio-economic catchments suffer more.
  • There is a discussion regarding diversity, defined as the mix of independents and national chains, stating that there is little evidence that presence of small and specialist independent shops is a buffer against decline. One must ask whether the correct measure is being used here. Our own evidence seems to suggest that it isn’t simply a matter of numbers, rather a balanced mix of the two types. Indeed, a lack of chain stores can signify a place that no longer draws national investment.
  • The Adaptable Suburbs project’s own focus of interest, the high streets and local ‘town’ centres is highlighted as having been “far more robust to the economic crisis and recession than might be imagined.” The fact that this is seen by UK government as a surprising result is indicative of the problem that the authors point out: if it isn’t measured or quantified, it is simply ‘below the radar’. Too frequently places (and businesses) below the radar are simply ignored by policy, even though, as Mark Brearley (ex GLA and now at Head of Cass Cities) would argue, it’s in many cases the sum total of the smaller places that provides for the underpinning of the economy. These ‘data gaps’ are explored in some detail and worth a closer read.

The report goes on to assess some topical issues for town centres today, including the rise of on-line retail. The potential for smaller town centres to provide ‘cafes’ to collect goods ordered on-line seems to chime with other new uses emerging on the high street, that provide multi-use shop fronts for combinations of activities (such a cycle repair) that might not have been considered in the past. Yet, in many ways, this, along with local delivery networks are in many ways a return to local economies that operated in some of our case studies in the distant past. My own local greengrocer delivers in the neighbourhood for free, just as ‘Bernies’ the grocer did to my home in Edgware back in the 1960s. The only difference is that my order is placed by text.

Localism and convenience are themes that continue through the report. This includes encouraging local goods, traceability, as well as a local face to compete with the anonymous shopping centre.

Mark Brearley yesterday showed the ‘thick crust’ of workshops, offices, churches and small industry that bolsters the dozens of high streets around London. In a similar way, the report highlights that non-shopping activities help create footfall for shopping activities (though it would have been good to see the spatial interrelationship between these, as shown in Gort Scott’s work on High Street London: it’s the interconnectivity between uses that makes for linked trips): http://www.dezeen.com/2013/02/06/gort-scott-at-designed-in-hackney-day-movie/

One thing we can surely agree with: the need to challenge the myths about the supposed “death” of the high street.

Threadneedle Man, Walworth Road SE17 Threadneedle Man, Walworth Road. http://www.londonshopfronts.com/. Image copyright Emily Webber, published under a creative commons licence.

An interesting blog was published on 5th March by James Lowman, Chief Executive of ACS (the Association of Convenience Stores or – ‘the voice of local shops’) – about the contribution of migrants to the vitality of small retail in the UK, creating jobs and contributing to economic growth. This chimes with the recent study by Suzanne Hall of Walworth Road*, which illustrates the importance of ‘mutual dependencies of economic exchange and social interchange in ethnically diverse urban contexts’. The sort of local worlds in which such businesses thrive, tend to be the sorts of places where there are higher proportions of more vulnerable people, who are more reliant on walkable shops that provide the added social, cultural and economic knowledge needed for such populations .

Lowman’s organisation might wish to note the apparent challenge (as argued by Hall) that PPG6 creates, since whilst it is intended to protect local high streets from out-of-town shopping compeition, it has allowed for large national chains to compete aggressively on the very terrain it was intended to protect.

Yesterday’s Adaptable Suburbs advisory committee also highlighted another point that Hall alludes to: the difficulty in coming up with a measurable value for the socio-economic sustainable contribution of small businesses to high streets, which can form a vital interdependence between larger and smaller businesses, provide local jobs (and expertise), are more likely to be vested in the place and – I would argue – when located well, connect high street and residential hinterland in a powerful way. More analysis of the ethnic business angle on this is evidently a worthwhile task to consider.

* HALL, S. M. (2011) High street adaptations: ethnicity, independent retail practices, and Localism in London’s urban margins. Environment and Planning A, 43, 2571-2588. http://www.envplan.com/abstract.cgi?id=a4494 See also her ‘Ordinary Streets’ project at http://lsecities.net/objects/research-projects/ordinary-streets and a downloadable report.

via Ethnic entrepreneurship.

The Adaptable Suburbs project was interested to read in the AJ (following a tweet by UCL Planning’s Michael Edwards (@michaellondonsf), that a debate took place last night on the proposition that London’s future economic success lies in focusing growth on London’s suburban centres. The idea that the future lies in building new business hubs (to me, a new name for the old-fashioned serviced offices, which haven’t been a roaring success in many cases) seems to be a distraction from the need to grow our smaller centres more organically – by ensuring that the inevitable densification of the housing is not carried out at the expense of places of production. As the article states: small suburban workshops can easily be demolished and turned into residential buildings, but few residential sites will be changed to employment uses.” Absolutely, more’s the pity. I’d rather be looking at Ramidus’ ideas about bringing industrial activities away from the edge ‘parks’ back into the heart of the town centres. In this way demand for services, including coffee shops, can naturally evolve.

A colleague pointed me to the Leader in Friday’s Building Design, which comments on the likely impact of the proposal to allow owners of light industrial, general industrial and storage (use classes B1, B2 and B8, respectively) to convert to housing without the need for planning permission. At first glance this is a worrying change – one which would have exactly the impact we’ve raised concerns about in the past; namely the transformation of the extended town centre into a purely residential area and the loss of the interdependent set of activities that the ‘active centre’ allows.

However, the Leader goes on to suggest that transformation to housing is less likely than the conversion of purely industrial units to live-work type uses (since the latter are easier to carry out with the existing industrial building stock). The proposition is not, as far as I can tell, that industrial buildings can be demolished and replaced with housing. With that caveat, this can only be good news and must be encouraged in the light of our research that points to the importance of adaptability in suburban areas.

The TV-famous shopping guru Mary Portas has taken on an independent UK Government review on The Future of the High Street. Whether or not one recognises her expertise, her influence is undoubted. It is therefore interesting to read the many comments on her thread. Several ideas are mooted there which are of interest to our project:

  • The advantages of ‘bricks and clicks’ (businesses with online as well as high street shopfronts);
  • Offering order and collect or drop off your shopping while you browse services
  • Creation of a local customer community to take disseminate local knowledge
  • Need for diversity of activities and diversity of business unit sizes (we’ve commented on this many times ourselves)
  • Problem of zoning of activities being anathema to mixing of uses
  • Free enterprise zones and/or low rent for start-up businesses (see earlier blog on business rate concessions)
  • Later opening hours for working people
  • Impact of road layout on speed of traffic, interruption of flows of pedestrian movement
  • Parking: convenience, price and ease all essential to town centre take-up
  • Relaxation of planning laws and regulations, lower local taxes
  • And interestingly – as we found betting shops to be the most common land use across the country – the “parasitical blight of betting shops” is cited as a fundamental barrier to good local centres

Tuesday’s Evening Standard and many other London papers reported on a new fund set up by the London mayor (part of a government grant) that will be available for bidding from outer London town centres who wish to set up local business districts and to improve retail, leisure, culture and arts provision. Boris Johnson was quoted in the Standard as saying “it is vital we address the historic neglect of the outer boroughs.” It will be interesting to see if industry is included in this programme. Previous research by the Joseph Rowntree Trust would suggest that it is unskilled and low skilled workers who most need work and training close to home.