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.

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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.

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

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The Alfred Dunhill leather factory and pipe workshop in Walthamstow (image: http://www.permanentstyle.co.uk/2010/04/factory-visit-alfred-dunhill.html

7. The high street’s human capital is bound up in its sustainability

The image above shows the Alfred Dunhill leather factory in Walthamstow, highlighting a feature that we have repeatedly encountered in our roaming around London’s outer suburbs, that craftsmanship is strongly embedded in place. This was a fact pointed out by Fiona Scott from Gort Scott in her presentation in December last year to the ‘Geography of the Economy’ session at the London High Streets network [see Pecha Kucha presentation here]. She pointed out that businesses such as the Dunhill Pipe Factory in Blackhorse Lane, an industrial area that is slowly emerging into a successful high street location has challenged perceptions that there’s not much going on the suburbs. On the contrary, there are many small-scale industrial, craft and design workshops and factories which require skilled labour. Such labour is difficult to recruit and vital to retain, particularly for a company that has a longstanding presence in an area, since they will have invested in its human capital – people who are unlikely to be willing or able to commute elsewhere. Demolition of a seemingly messy collection of old industrial buildings might be the death-knell not only of a company, but of its local, in some cases highly skilled, workforce.

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Entrance to printworks, previously forge, in alley behind Barnet high street

This links back to the project’s research, which has identified untapped potential for economic sustainability in smaller town centres. A street network that enables trips of a variety of lengths to and through the centre, as well as buildings and layouts that can be adapted to different uses, contributes to the success of both national and local businesses. Such enterprises employ local people, particularly low-skilled workers who cannot afford to travel further, as well as highly skilled workers who, due to their family situation, need to work close to home. Such conditions further contribute to a location’s environmental sustainability by reducing the number and length of car journeys, and social sustainability through the ability of community activities to take place in conveniently situated local buildings such as pubs, converted church halls and cinemas and through the everyday interactions that a mixing of different sorts of people in and around a local centre engender.

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“Mutuality and resonance, in their many forms, are the stuff of most human exchange”: Borehamwood market

Social sustainability and vibrancy arise in urban and building layouts that can support a wide range of activities throughout the day and the week. Suburban centres which provide plenty of different activities encourage the presence of a diverse mix of people, coming from a variety of distances, all with different reasons for using the centre. The result is ‘mutuality and resonance’ in the suburban town centre:

Mutuality and resonance, in their many forms, are the stuff of most human exchange. We chat pleasantly about the weather, share a joke we heard with our hairdresser, pass an hour over coffee gossiping with a friend.  These mostly unremarkable events soon fade into the dustbin of memory, yet without them life is apt to feel empty and cold.” (From The Space between Us: Exploring the Dimensions of Human Relationships. R. Josselson, 1996:  p. 152. – via Wendy Olsen).

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

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Goad shopping map for Surbiton high street and environs recorded in 1968. Note the number of vacant properties.

3. The high street is not just for retail
The constant lament about the supposed ‘death’ of the high street inevitably focuses on shop closures, but such a focus overlooks the importance of other town centres uses in contributing to the life and success of town centres.

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Histogram of all land uses within the Surbiton business directories of 1875, 1915, 1956 and observed on the ground in 2013. An identical survey area was used for all four periods. ‘Third Spaces’ refers to cafes, pubs and similar non-work and non-home functions.

The above analysis takes all ground floor land uses covered by the business directoryof 1875 and then compares all non-residential activity within the same area through subsequent periods: 1915, 1956 and today. The astonishing finding is that retail was never a majority activity, even in the supposed heyday of the 1950s. This points to our project’s proposition – that there is a necessary interdependence between retail and other town centre activities: community services, manufacturing, offices and commerce and manufacturing, as well as cafes and other ‘third space’ activities – all of which collectively contribute to the vitality of town centres.

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M. Perkins & Son Ltd. manufacturers and wholesalers of fabrics and trimmings’ Surbiton factory in the 1950s (from http://www.mperkins.com/history.html)

In a recent report by the UK government Department for Business, Innovation and Skills on Understanding High Street Performance, (who by the way highlight the lack of historic performance comparisons, although I suspect they don’t mean comparisons going back 150 years) argue for a ‘21st century agora’, where the high street is to become a “multifunctional destination, with retail playing a part alongside community, public service, leisure, cultural and civic uses.” The report affirms our project’s previous findings on interdependence, stating that “non-commercial activity is missing from current assessments of high street activity. The presence of a Citizen’s Advice Bureau or library can be as important in drawing footfall as a café or fashion store; the use of buildings as student accommodation could indicate a viable market in convenience shopping.” This is undoubtedly true. The key point here is the multi-functionality: resilience will be much greater if a centre is not reliant on just one form of activity.

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Alsford Timber: on the junction of St Mark’s Hill and Adelaide Road.© Copyright Hugh Venables and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence. Source: http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/3337344.

But our argument is for reversing the thinking further still: the report overlooks a single function that has always been present in town centres of the size we’re studying, namely production, or manufacturing (depicted in the 1950s photo further above) . Now, I know that we have many fewer factories of this sort today, but the facts speak for themselves: different forms of production, whether the timber yard at the junction of St Mark’s Hill and Adelaide Road, or the jam producer working at home and selling at the farmers’ market, are both forms of local production that have contributed to the economy and social life of suburbs both in the past and in the present. Whilst it it true to say that small-scale producers selling out of their premises was a larger proportion of land uses (see the relatively large amount of lavender colour in the histogram for 1875 and 1915, there is still a proportion of such activities today). Whether the planned easing of use classes is likely to encourage such functions in the future is a point worth considering. We lose this vital component of town centre activity at our peril as I will explain further in a forthcoming blog.

 

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 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

I note the Outer London Commission has had its first meeting . The associated documents make for interesting reading in relation to our project. In particular:

Outer London: Realising its potential

Point 11: see the recognition that the outer suburbs are not just a dormitory, and contribute to London’s regional economic development.

Point 14: demonstrate the vision that employment must be physically accessible and that this is tied in with sustainability: ” What matters is that jobs are easy to get to…, are located to meet local aspirations and broader policy objectives eg reducing CO2 emissions”.

Point 22: the recognition of the importance of smaller town centres and that these need to be walkable: “Addressing the unique circumstances of London, the London Plan is more rigorous than national policy both in resisting inappropriate out-of centre development and in encouraging partners to work together … partners should work to ensure that it becomes more sustainable in terms of public transport access and, in appropriate locations, evolves into functionally balanced town centres.”

Point 23: also recognition of the importance of parking; this is something that has come up quite frequently in our detailed case studies.

Point 30: alongside a focus on 4-5 hubs, the intention is to identify smaller town centres that serve as exemplars of best practice.

Outer London: Economic data and statistics

This paper also makes interesting reading. It compiles statistics from a variety of sources that attempt to tease out the particularities of the outer London boroughs. Note the following in particular:

– The report highlights the uneven distribution of different economic sectors: “relatively large shares of Croydon’s and south eastern London’s employment [is in] in financial services. Amongst Outer London areas, creative jobs are most predominant in the western and south western zones and wholesale activities provide large shares of employment in the western wedge”.

– There is also interesting data on very small firms, using ONS inter departmental business database to locate VAT registered enterprises by employment size band – showing that the largest number of firms with <4 employees in the borough of Barnet and the smallest, in Barking and Dagenham (note, not normalised by population).

– Also notable are the statistics on commuting patterns, which show that outer London suburbs are recipients of significant numbers of in-flows. We knew this already, but what is interesting that this is presented as a surprising finding: “even Outer London boroughs depend significantly on non-resident workers – 39% of Croydon’s workers do not live in the borough, 50% in Kingston.”