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).

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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.

The Adaptable Suburbs project has recently had an article published in the Journal of Space Syntax. The article addresses the question of how the fringes of cities develop spatially at both the local scale of the individual town centre and in relation to the wider urban network. The changing network structure of the street systems of two outer suburban areas of Greater London, Surbiton and South Norwood, are analysed from the 1880s onwards. A temporal reading of the process of urban growth in relation to the historic street network of local centres allows for a nuanced understanding of the way in which cities grow over time. Rather than conceptualising suburban growth as either a seeding of new territories in tabula rasa or a ‘swallowing-up’ of older settlements, the article argues for a measured description of the spatial, social and economic properties of urban grid intensification.

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South Norwood 1880, 1910, 1960 and 2013 (top-left, top-right, bottom-left, bottom-right, respectively), with contemporaneous background mapping and land uses, overlaid with segment angular integration 800 metres. Map scale 1:1500. © Crown Copyright/ database right 2013. An Ordnance Survey/EDINA supplied service.

This research uses digitised historical maps, historical and contemporary land-use data together with space syntax analysis in order to identify historical-morphological parameters of change and continuity in London’s suburban street network from the 1880s. The analysis demonstrates that over the period of time considered there have been distinct stages in the spatial development of the city’s urban fringe. The results show that as London expanded to encircle new territories, the spatial relationships of fringe areas of the city changed markedly as larger scale infrastructure was built and local development intensified, with the effect of reconfiguring the local network of the case study suburbs. However, detailed analysis of the formation of suburban town centres using space syntax also uncovers distinctive and resilient spatial morphologies which have sustained varied modes of land use over time. Drawing on the theory of the urban ‘movement economy’ and our previous research in this area, the article shows how the complex balance of change and continuity realised in the spatial morphology of the suburban high street can be explained by complex scalar mechanisms of adaptability. We argue that these qualities have helped ensure the resilience of historical suburban centres even in the face of radical social change.

Download the article from the Adaptable Suburbs project website here: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/adaptablesuburbs/publications.

New London tweetography

January 26, 2011

UrbanTick have produced a ‘New City Landscape‘ to ‘represent location based twitter activity as the tweetography’ of London. This pseudo topographic maps shows volumes of tweets peaking in central London, but with some interesting outliers in a couple of places known to our project. It’s particularly amusing to note that both Borehamwood (‘Hill’) and Radlett (‘Hill’) feature as loci of tweeting activity in an otherwise flat landscape of outer north-west London. And no, I haven’t contributed to that volume of tweets – I wouldn’t know where to start!

London tweetography

In this month’s RIBA Journal, Anne Kemp, Head of Atkins Geospatial makes an interesting comment about the ability of the latest technology to integrate CAD (Computer Aided Design – the conventional design tool for architects, normally used at the building and small urban design scale) with GIS (Geographic Information Systems, normally used for viewing, manipulating and mapping spatial data to analyse relationships between data in the larger scales). Dr Kemp suggests that integrating the geospatial with Building Information Modelling (BIM) allows the users to model “seamlessly between the building and the outside environment”. This development has clear relevance to our discussions about designing within an aging built environment and integrating new sustainable solutions into urban infrastructure. She states that “geospatial technologies can provide the framework for sustainable masterplanning to enable evidence-based decision making in relation to all aspects of sustainabilty, including energy, water and material use, and socio-economic impacts…” (page 62).

The review of Suburban High Streets has been published in Geography Compass today. The paper, titled ‘The Sustainable Suburban High Street: A Review of Themes and Approaches’ written by the project team and the writing was led by Sam Griffiths.

‘Whether suburbs are regarded as a distinctive feature of the contemporary urban landscape or as symptomatic of ‘sprawl’ the recent upsurge of scholarly interest in suburbia has done little to displace the dominant image of the suburb as a primarily residential phenomenon. In a wide ranging survey of the academic literature, taking account of current developments in the policy debate relating to suburban regeneration and also drawing on research conducted by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s Towards Successful Suburban Town Centres project at University College London, this article argues for an approach to the suburbs that emphasises their importance as historical centres of diverse social and economic activity. The focus is on the ‘typical’ British suburban high street, regarded as a complex and dynamic socio-spatial entity facing particular challenges to its vitality and viability in the light of ongoing socio-economic change. It is suggested that an improved understanding of the relation between suburban society and the built form of suburban centres over time would lead to a fuller appreciation of the actual and potential contribution of the local high street to achieving sustainable built environments.’

The paper can be accessed on the Geography Compass website.

A recent issue of Science is dedicated to ‘Cities’. The issue provides a very good context for current challenges and understanding of cities in general, and therefore to the wider context of our study.

Of a special interest is Mike Batty’s ‘The Size, Scale and Shape of Cities‘ which provides a coverage of current developments in Complexity Science with respect to cities. This short paper provides the links to the concepts and approaches that are common in Complexity Science: fractals, scale-free network, network dynamics, power laws etc. It is noteworthy how much of the literature is being published in Physics and not in Urban Planning or Geography.

One of the challenges in using Complexity Science is to move from a descriptive mode which is about discovering patterns in existing data, to a predictive model or to some analysis that can be used by planners in the process of redesigning and managing cities.

Interestingly, the paper questions the top down approach for urban planning and raises the need to integrate morphology and function in analysis. While our study is not approaching the analysis of suburban town centres from the Complexity Science angle, we are linked to these concepts through the current work in Space Syntax, the analysis of detailed and large data sets and other aspects.

Although there is no consensus in literature on what exactly “success” is for a particular policy, intervention or centre (economic turnover? social integration? Resident/Customer/Stakeholder fulfilment?), one should still be able to put forward, in the freedom of their own point of view, what they see success as, and then investigate the dynamics towards this understanding of success. But I must warn that I will not focus on what success is for us here, our view on the successful suburban centre deserves a separate dedicated thread in the blog. What I want to focus on is how to go about researching into the dynamics of it.

Apart from the big question mark on definition of success, one issue in generally in all discussions about the “success” of the town centre, is that a) signs and b) reasons of success are not separated clearly. One trying to tackle an issue like success will benefit greatly from differentiating which aspects effectively tell them a particular centre is successful, and which aspects they see as contributors/factors helping that success result to come out. Only if we decide on results (effect), we are able to test the possible reasons (causes), to see if they contribute to that result or not.

For instance, let’s say our expected readable result of success is diversity of uses for a moment. This can be made measurable (having existence of group x, group y, group z above a threshold we define, although how to measure diversity is still a discussable issue) and we would end up with centres scoring well or poorly on this indicator. Then we should have a set of candidate set of measurable causes that we think contributes positively towards this diversity result, considering the micro-scale of our project. Again go with the example for a moment, we could ponder on the possible micro-spatial causes that would lead to diversity: size of units, grid size, and variety of micro-spatial patterns in the centre. Then we can test each of these candidate micro-spatial causes for centres that scored well and poorly in terms of “diversity”, were they indeed a factor?

A similar example can be given for “accessibility”. I personally see accessibility as a reason for success, not a sign of success. The sign of success I expect it to contribute towards is the existence of people across the daily time slots, in other words, the continuity of activity across time (again, something we agree on as a team to do with success, but to be discussed under the success title). Now the question of whether accessibility contributes towards this can be answered by deriving our measures of accessibility on micro and/or macro scale on one hand, having a measure for existence/continuity of activity on the other, and see if there is a relationship between the score of these measures in the centres we are working on.

Moving on to Selection of Case studies, trying to put these expected, assumed signs of success forward should not be a step for selecting the case studies. In fact, case studies should be selected independently from what we assume success is. The reason we are selecting a number of case studies to work on in more detail is that we simply can not run our detailed analyses everywhere due to time and funding constraints. However this does not necessarily mean this selection should be random, because we still would like to compare like with like, we want to know what kind of centres, within the macro framework, we are dealing with in the later stages.

The possible case study selection factors we discussed today in our internal meeting, such as: a) size/scale of centre, b) having a residential background, are possible factors to enable us to define our boundary, regarding where- within what type of geography- we are searching for success.

Such simple approach for selecting the case studies would also protect us from the danger of biasing ourselves towards expected success from the beginning; both successful and unsuccessful cases would have equal chance of being included in our selection.