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

blog7_networkpotential_retailImage showing network betweenness centrality (the space syntax measure of choice) for London in a warm-to-cold colour range, with a greyscale density surface of all retail activity based on postcode data

9. The high street is formed and shaped over time

Space Syntax analysis of retail activity across the M25 region of London highlights its essentially linear distribution (top figure). At this regional scale, larger centres tend to be represented as highly integrated ‘attractors’, that is, destinations where one might choose to move to and around; smaller centres, by contrast, are more likely to be represented as places where one might pass through en route to somewhere else; yet at a more local level they too serve as destinations. In sustaining activity across different scales, smaller centres are every bit as complex as larger centres. Patterns of activities evident when considering the wider area are not always repeated locally. Retail activity, for example, is not always found on the most accessible routes locally and tends to be intermingled with other uses.

blog9 (2) Image shows Loughton, a suburban centre in north-east London in its evolution from 1880 onwards (today’s peak retail centre is highlighted with the jagged black line in the centre of each map). The network accessibility of the centre is coloured up in a range from red to blue and overlaid with building footprints for each period.

As soon as you start to consider the town centre in a broader sense: the high street set within the network of surrounding streets containing lower levels of activity, it becomes evident that different sorts of transactions are distributed according to a spatial logic of its own. In this way, different parts of the town centre are located on streets that are prominent at different scales of connectivity.

This variation of scales is arguably part of the natural evolution of town centres, which allows for different functions, such as uses that relate to local transacitons, to co-exist by being positioned facing each other, with different functions serving people from elsewehere, situated in positions that take advantage of wider-scale routes. Having similar functions facing each other in a form of domino-like symmetry affirms the character of the place – as MacCormac (1996) has suggested [MacCormac, R., 1996. An Anatomy of London. Built Environment 22 (4), 306-311]. In this way ‘local transactions’ such as pubs can blend with ‘foreign transactions’ such as warehousing, without putting the latter functions in remote locations (see section of Goad map below). If we consider last week’s blog, this balance and articulation of urban network connections adds to the adaptability of the city to host differing land-use patterns through time. As I have written elsewhere*, in the past even at the building scale, shifts in the way buildings were used allowed industry, dwellings and entertainment to be juxtaposed turn-by-turn around the urban block.

Goad_314_1890_sectionSection of Goad Fire Insurance plan,  Vol. 11, sheet 314, May 1990. ©Landmark Information Group Ltd. The letter symbols on the buildings denote dwelling (D), shop (S), tenements (TEN) and etc.

Further reading: * Vaughan, Laura. 2013. Is the future of cities the same as their past? Urban Pamphleteer #1: Future and Smart Cities 1:20-22. Download: Urban Pamphleteer #1 (pdf)

This is the eighth 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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Map of land uses around High Barnet town centre 2008. © Adaptable Suburbs project

8. High street diversity can lead to adaptability

The image above of the variety of land uses around High Barnet town centre belies the common criticism of the ongoing homogenisation of the high street. Indeed, our working definition of diversity in the context of the suburban town centre is the presence of a large number of different land uses serving a variety of people. We propose that diversity is a sign that a centre is inherently adaptable, since it has evidently adapated to change and weathered the dramatic social and economic upheavals of the past 150 years.

If this is correct, it calls for new measures for success rather than simply counting retail footfall or office rental values – or indeed how smart they are. Instead, town centres can measure their success by the degree to which they change swiftly and ‘smartly’. As Alex Lifschutz has stated (Blueprint, June 2007): cities and buildings need to be made of much more general, simpler ingredients; an evolving fabric easily capable of change that is able to respond… to needs and to become a platform of diversity”, with a “degree of redundancy”.

The illustration below is a good example of this sort of adapability. Land use changes will involve changes in morphology, but the generic relationship between the buildings in this case – larger buildings facing the main road served by smaller buildings behind them – hasn’t changed, despite the long passage of time since they were first constructed.

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Conduit Mews, Westminster, London. Image © Danny Robinson http://www.yourlocalweb.co.uk/greater-london/city-of-westminster/paddington/pictures/page2/

Having a mix of smaller and larger buildings allows for a mix of smaller and large businesses as well as the array of activities that necessarily feed off each other within a town centre. This is why we study high streets within their wider context: land uses within a catchment of up to a kilometre away and built form and network connectivity within a radius of three kilometres. By taking account of the larger spatial ecology, we can understand the full extent of the interconnected relationships between land uses and the people who serve and use them. As Richard MacCormac has said: buildings and streets are “like coral reefs that are re-inhabited over and over again [in a recurring pattern. So,] eighteenth-century-city large houses on primary streets were inhabited by high-income families and the mews behind serviced them. Today the houses might be offices with the mews inhabited by businesses selling services – commercial or professional – like photocopying, printing or sandwich bars to the primary users.” [MacCormac, R., 1996. An Anatomy of London. Built Environment 22 (4), 306-311.]

Next week: more on network connectivity.

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So they went out in the dark… From The Tiger Who Came to Tea © Judith Kerr and Harper Collins

6. The high street can be sociable and intimate

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. The reality is unsurprisingly that the suburban town centre is a much more complex and dynamic entity than generally understood. In spite (or perhaps because of) the fact that the majority of people in English-speaking countries live in it, suburbia has remained “the love that dares not speak its name”: it is frequently despised and easily patronised*. From an architectural point of view, there are some good reasons why the suburbs are considered a poor solution to mass housing. With the widespread use of cars and low densities, contemporary thinking would suggest that suburbia represents a poor use of natural resources and an unsustainable way of designing.

Yet, before we dismiss suburbs as a bad thing, I suggest that we need to reflect on the circumstances under which they are the best solution and thus to separate the ‘good’ from the ‘bad’ elements of suburbia. From a social point of view – despite assertions that suburbs lead to alienation, that they are homogenous breeding grounds for apathy – ‘the sticks’ are the place so many people aspire to. This includes immigrants to Britain and their children who see the suburbs as the place where they can proudly state their new sense of belonging and where they can create new modes of sociability, as was described by the participants in the recent BBC Radio 4 programme: Journeys Down my Street: Ode to Finchleystrasse, who told of recreating Viennese Kaffeeklatsch in London’s Finchley Road: transporting the social life of the old country to the new.
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Stanley Halls, South Norwood

Similarly, the cosy image drawn by Judith Kerr in her classic children’s book ‘The Tiger Who Came to Tea’ belies the author’s background – a German Jewish refugee who spent several years of her childhood on the move until she settled in the south-west suburbs of London. The book depicts how the family home is barely disrupted by the astonishing appearance of a ‘big furry tripey tiger’, who joins Sophie and Mummy for tea and promptly clears the house of all food and drink. When Daddy comes home the obvious solution is to pop out to have supper in a café. See how the illustration at the top of this blog has Sophie wearing a coat over her nightie. Not only is home a place of safety (or refuge), but the high street, even at night, can become an extension of it.

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Zoroastrian Centre, formerly the Rayners Lane Grosvenor – an Art Deco cinema built in 1936. Image from http://www.modernism-in-metroland.co.uk/rayners-lane-grosvenor.html

The night time economy is not a subject generally considered for smaller town centres. Clearly nightclubs and all-night pubs would be in conflict with the needs of local residents, but in the past town centres of the sort we are studying accommodated uses such as clubs, theatres and cinemas quite comfortably. If town centres are to remain relevant for young and older people alike, they will need to provide for their needs – whether for an early evening supper, for ‘catch-up’ shopping after work hours or for entertainment.

* As suggested by Professor Vesna Goldsworthy, Director of the Centre for Suburban Studies, Kingston University. See: Goldsworthy, V. (2004) ‘The Love that Dares not Speak its Name: Englishness and Suburbia’. In Rogers, D. & MacLeod, J. (Eds.) Revisions of Englishness. Manchester, Manchester University Press, 95-106.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

The Lamb Inn, Surbiton © Anthony Falla http://www.flickr.com/photos/anthonyfalla/6531508447/

The Lamb Inn, Surbiton © Anthony Falla http://www.flickr.com/photos/anthonyfalla/6531508447/

4. The high street means different things to different people

The planner or architect’s view of high streets tends to focus on its central, high volume activities – such as shops and offices, transport links and cafes – and to overlook the fact that the people using high streets will have varied perspectives on how the place fits into their daily lives.

blog4_M's_map_of_SurbitonA child’s view of her high street: see sketch – left – drawn by one respondent to our ethnographic study of Surbiton, shows the location of home, swings, hill, the park, nursery, sandpit and two shops of particular importance to her. ‘The Lamb’ pub (location of the mapping exercise) and home are noted on the far right of the sketch at the end of the street line. The child’s perspective shows how the scale of the area encompasses small and happy spaces. Passing people on her daily forays around the area are apparently central to her reading of what Surbiton means to her (when drawing the sketch and describing all the features she was drawing she mentioned to the Adaptable Suburbs’ ethnographer how they always pop into ‘Anne’s shop’).

Both this sketch and the ones below point to an important aspect of high streets: there is an inevitable risk of seeing them as central to the lives of their surrounding inhabitants, but the reality is that the relationship between centre and hinterland is much more complicated than a neat map would suggest.

Consider the two maps drawn in the same exercise by adults who live/work in Surbiton. In both cases the sketches were drawn first or very early in the interview, which explored their feelings about their locality as part of an ongoing ethnography of the Adaptable Suburbs project cases.They show the river and only a few key and frequently used (rather than busy or well connected) roads dotted with frequent or memorable landmarks. Both show the train as an exit: indicating that in this case they think of their surroundings as a zone around a home. People spoke of feeling/relating differently to the centre of nearby Kingston than they do to Surbiton.

blog4_H's_map blog4_Map of My Surbiton

The high street is there for those who need it and those that choose to live a more suburban way of life can dip in and out of town life as suits them, whilst those who prefer to lead a more anonymous lifestyle can opt out of such activities.

The high street itself is actually the edge of somewhere else once you take account of its relationship to nearby centres. For example, you might only pass through Surbiton en route to the university at Kingston (raising the question to what extent is it a place that draws you to wander beyond the train station once you’ve reached it). The high street itself might be on the edge of someone’s life-world, because their daily journey to the post office or school comes from one particular direction (raising the question of the impact of railway lines in severing town centres into two, as is the case in South Norwood and Surbiton). It goes without saying that none of the sketches have north at the top. Such sketches, coupled with the hour-long interview with the ethnographer together constitute ‘thick descriptions’* of people’s experiences of their surroundings, rather than singular representations of a place in time, as in a standard OS map.

* Geertz, Clifford. 1973. Thick description: toward an interpretive theory of culture. Chapter 1 in: The interpretation of cultures: selected essays, edited by C. Geertz. New York: Basic Books.

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.

Perkins&Son_1950s_factory_Surbiton

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.

 

This is the second 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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Surbiton c. 1915, showing a business directory page; 1915 Ordnance Survey map with ‘third spaces’ (hotels, pubs, cafes) coloured orange; and buildings with retail functions coloured purple (inset)

2. The high street is not just one thing

Post offices are an interesting thing to consider when we start thinking about the nature of high streets. One of the exercises we have taken some considerable time to work on is to go through the business directories of the four outer London case studies over the four study periods (late 19th, early 20th, mid 20th and contemporary) to get to grips with their shifting character over time and space. Hours of fun have been had trying to work out whether, for example, a post office is a financial service, a depot, a shop or a community service – or indeed all of the above.

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The problem of classification is not academic. If we’re to break out of discourse of retail as equating with high street (see also next week’s blog), then we need to move beyond fixed ideas of what these places are and what purposes they serve. As we’ve said before on this blog, Savills Research wrote in Valuing Sustainable Urbanism –  in a “sustainable world there is no such thing as a single class use”. They claim that even residential property gives rise to mixed use, since population arriving on a new site will always generate a “huge range of human activities”. The way in which those activities will be provided for: the location and access to shops, schools and offices as well as post-office and library is an essential component of the sustainability of a settlement. Urban design needs not only to create potential for local walking (and the obvious environmental benefits from this), but social sustainability: more potential for encounter between different sectors of society – both local and those coming from a longer distance as well as economic sustainability: town centre shops can benefit from passing trade alongside people making special trips to the area.