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):

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

Today I gave a short presentation to the UCL Summer School for Research Students. The Summer School is held by UCL Grand Challenges and is meant “to provide an experience for research students at UCL that enables them to understand and discuss the Grand Challenges philosophy and also develop practical skills in preparing research proposals that necessitate and combine expertise from different disciplines.”


I took the opportunity to present some of the thinking behind a book chapter written with Professor Muki Haklay on the challenges of interdisciplinary work. In the chapter we focus on the tensions and common ground between geographers and architects when researching urban space – especially at the neighbourhood scale. It is based on experience gained over seven years of research into how networks of activity and the changing form of London’s spatial networks have had an impact on the city’s adaptability to social and economic change. This research involves a team comprising an architect, anthropologist, geographer, historian and spatial scientist. The project has been highly productive in shaping new theories on cities in general and suburban town centres in particular. The collaboration between geography and architecture serves to change thinking into the nature of human behaviour in the built environment. Despite the fact that the architectural field of space syntax theory and methodology provides a powerful means of exploring and representing the structure of the built environment through the use of axial network maps, its traditional emphasis on spatial structure has tended to marginalise the socio-economic and demographic processes that are the human geographer’s primary concern. At the same time, geographical research has tended to prioritise the social construction of space at the cost of considering how this relates to the spatial context in which social activity is situated. Using space syntax methods coupled with built form and land use analysis to track the evolution of London over the past 150 years we can build new theories of emergence. The spatial analysis indicates that local centres follow different patterns of building densification and street intensification that are shaped by the configurational trajectories taken by existing routes. We propose that flows of movement are shaped by the manner of growth in organically emergent systems, where spatial structures and social practices both evolve synergistically.

Following is a list of further reading recommended to students at the Summer School:



The Adaptable Suburbs Closing Conference, the culmination of four years’ research into the factors that influence the success of town centres, heard from a wide selection of international high street researchers. A number of themes emerged with direct relevance to current policy debate on the future of the high street and have been written up in a report, downloadable here.

Following is a summary of the report:

  • Despite the obituaries the high street is still very much alive. High streets have proved resilient, surviving centuries of social change to remain the functional centre of most towns and cities.
  • High streets have changed in order to survive but, while buildings and businesses may be different, the mix of uses has remained very similar. This mix is essential to a successful high street.
  • Cities function as movement networks, and because movement creates activity it determines whether high streets succeed or fail. If pedestrians and traffic are diverted away, high streets wither and die.
  • High streets are poorly understood, but they represent a combination of complex influences creating enormous economic and social benefit, which is both under-recognised and undervalued. They are an asset that we need to appreciate, and to invest in.
  • High streets are threatened by poor planning. Standard planning definitions of high streets miss out large areas of business and other non-domestic activity. This leaves them unprotected, and pressure to convert commercial premises to residential use could permanently undermine their viability.
  • Not all high streets are healthy. Many are suffering and will need intervention and investment to support them. Policy should focus on bringing people back to high streets, generating the activity needed to support businesses.
  • Planners and policymakers need to take ordinary, small-scale high street uses more seriously. Ignoring small businesses and local activities means ignoring the important social role they play and the people who make a living through them.
  • Both the economic and the social value of high streets need to be measured and represented better, and communicated clearly to investors and decision-makers.
  • The future of the high street is an international issue, and an international research agenda is needed to help understand and address common problems.

Urban renewal needs more than ‘garden city’ stamp to take root

By Laura Vaughan, University College London

Every few years the ideals of Ebenezer Howard’s garden city utopia are resurrected in an attempt by the UK government to create new communities, and address the country’s housing crisis. Sometimes this takes the form of new towns or eco-towns, and sometimes proposals for an actual garden city are put forward – as in the last budget.

Rather than just rolling out this romantic terminology, we should take a closer look at garden city ideals and how they can be adopted to make the proposed Ebbsfleet development a success.

Several years ago my colleague Michael Edwards presciently forecast the current problems in the Thames Gateway where Ebbsfleet falls, with a dominance of private development that does little to provide for local employment and walkable communities.

Ebenezer Howard’s utopian vision


He outlined the need to return to funding principles similar to the garden city model, where development trusts retain freeholds on the land. This model, based on investment in infrastructure and services, is a fundamental principle that shifts from short-term returns to a long-term relationship created between the collective or public landowner and local inhabitants.

Lessons from history

Despite the fact that the garden city was a highly influential model throughout the first half of the 20th century, ultimately leading to the establishment of some key settlements in the UK, US and elsewhere in the world, it has had few genuine successes. After World War II, similar utopian dreams of creating model communities, with decent housing surrounding a well-designed centre, met with the reality. British reformer William Beveridge famously summed them up for having “no gardens, few roads, no shops and a sea of mud”.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that past lessons would be applied to the next generation of housing. But, even the post-war housing plans – though inspired by the garden city movement of the interwar periods – failed to plan the new housing in relation to transport, employment and public services such as shops and schools. While UK government reports have tried to draw lessons from both their positive and negative aspects, they have also been criticised in more recent reports, for lacking a sense of community – although it should also be said that “community” takes time to develop and cannot be “designed” as such.

Many of the challenges of creating new communities are bound up in the spatial separation between newcomers and older inhabitants, a lack of social infrastructure, such as doctor’s surgeries and schools, and difficulties that stem from long commutes, such as lower net income and the strain this has on families. Ruth Durant found this in her 1939 study of Burnt Oak on the outskirts of London.

Early post-war new towns were similarly criticised for their very slow build-up of health services, higher schooling, cultural facilities and decent shopping facilities, although some did better with the provision of local employment, due to many people moving to the towns with a local job linked to their housing. With shifts in the industrial economy, such beneficial connections between home and work (one of the tenets of the garden city) reduced over time.

Modern twist

The challenges today are slightly different, however. People live more mobile and fragmented lives and are arguably less likely to be tied to place as was the case for the primarily working-class (and manual labouring) communities of the past. This poses the risk that community will be lost because of how transient people can be.

But increased mobility and social interaction don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Indeed, a lack of mobility is the worst problem that can be imposed on a community: both work and leisure must be accessible to people. Plus, with the advent of the internet and grass-roots activism, connections can traverse space more easily. This has allowed movements such as the Transition Network, which brings communities together around sustainable issues, to blossom.

Adapting to change

UCL’s EPSRC funded Adaptable Suburbs project has studied the evolution of London’s outer suburban towns over the past 150 years, providing some clues on what has made for the relative success of the original garden cities over other planned settlements. It is clear that their success has been dependent on excellent transport connections, coupled with the provision of local employment and access to employment at a commutable distance.

Also important is the provision of a mixed-use town centre, giving a destination for a wide variety of activities in addition to retail: community activities, schools, leisure and cultural uses. Centres work well when connected to the street network, accessible by foot, bicycle, public and private transport. This multi-functional design has helped even the smallest of centres to sustain themselves through the most recent economic recession.

A recent government report, “Understanding High Street Performance”, also found that successful town centres are “characterised by considerable diversity and complexity, in terms of scale, geography and catchment, function and form … [as] a result, the way in which they are affected by and respond to change is diverse and varied”.

It is almost impossible to predict how society will change in the future, particularly as new technologies have the power to change how people connect and build community. But what is evident is that here lies another essential aspect of building successful communities: in allowing for places to adapt to change.

This needs to be a foundational aspect of the government’s new cities – simply invoking the phrase “garden city” is not enough. By building places with sufficient flexibility of buildings, infrastructure and uses, coupled with links that allow for local and wider-scale trips to take place, with the necessary long-term financial investment, we can start to create places that will successfully weather the future.

The Conversation

Laura Vaughan has received funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council for the Adaptable Suburbs project.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Last week the Adaptable Suburbs project had the opportunity of speaking about its work at UCL’s Lunch Hour Lectures series.

Much of the content of our series of blogs: ’10 Things you might not know about high streets’ was recapped here. Of particular interest were the comments and questions from the audience, which can be taken to reflect what’s on the mind of people thinking about the future high streets. These were as follows:

Local networks

The first point related to the Transition Town movement. An audience member pointed out that grass root activism has tremendous importance in enlivening high streets. Initiatives such as local growing of crops add layers of connections to the local community. Interestingly, she mentioned the Kentish Town based movement, which, coincidentally (or not) has had some considerable success in starting a web-based cultural news site that has started to publish a monthly print edition: The Kentishtowner. I wonder if this a reversal of the trend of papers moving to online-only editions.

High streets: serving as both link and place

The second question related to transport and asked whether busy transport conduits have an impact on how high streets develop. Jones et al’s research on ‘mixed use streets’ for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation is relevant here. The authors argue that the principles of modernist planning served to undermine the characteristic mix of the traditional high street by deploying large, isolated blocks to separate buildings from streets, traffic from pedestrians and different land uses from each other. It is evident that traffic comes to play a part iwhen the high street’s role as a place in its own right as well as a link within a regional movement system, comes into conflict with its being an important transit route. In extreme cases, high traffic volumes can start to sever the two sides of a high street into two. Indeed, this is the topic of enquiry in the new Street Mobility and Network Accessibility project recently started at UCL[1].

Impact of online shopping

One of the questions was about internet shopping, asking whether large online sites constituted a threat to high streets, or will they survive alongside them? It was interesting to hear from the audience a couple of examples where internet shopping is actually creating new physical realities on high streets. ‘Shop and Drop’ sites, which allow people to order online and then collect from a town centre location mean that community functions such as libraries (for example in London’s Shepherds Bush) or indeed independent shops, can benefit from additional footfall. Local distributors working from a small van on behalf of online retailers and online retailers using internet data analysis to work out where to locate distribution depot locations all suggest that – putting aside that shopping is not the only aspect of high streets – online shopping may create new realities on the high street. Indeed, with collection of deliveries by individuals needing to take place after work hours, only time will tell whether new activities that take advantage of early evening footfall will emerge on local high streets.

Residential presence in the high street

The significance and change in residential uses in the high street has, as an audience member commented, flowed up and down (and indeed our data show this, as can be seen in the significant amount of unclassified (mostly residential) land uses that can be seen on the maps shown during the lecture. The question raised was regarding the importance of residential buildings to the vitality of high street. The response made during the lecture was that despite the pressures to densify residences in town centres, it is vital that non-domestic land uses are not diluted beyond a certain point. Structures such as messy workshops – especially those typically located just behind high streets – can seem ripe for conversion to residential use, but they serve a vital need in providing space for new businesses to start up at low risk and with the benefit of adjacency to the functions and footfall that the high street provides. The businesses themselves provide additional footfall as well as, in the long run, local employment

As the example of South Norwood’s Portland Road has shown, when one side of the high street is allowed to convert to residential uses, the outcome is that the opposite side suffers. The key to successful residential/non-domestic mixing can be seen in places like Chipping (High) Barnet, where footpaths connect between the high street and its hinterland. Residential uses need to be accessible to the high street. If they are to be built on the high street itself, it seem evident that this has to be in locations at the farthest reaches of the peak activity.

Portland Road, South Norwood

Indeed we commented on this matter following the interim consultation by DCLG on “The Future of High Streets” in July 2013, which suggested a change in UK government policy to allow empty properties on the high street to contain a wide range of new uses, including increasing "housing on the high street". We wrote to Building Design at the time that “we would make a plea to take the decision to increase housing with caution: losing the spatial continuity of ‘live’ uses on either side of a street has the potential outcome of allowing it to wither over time.”

Chipping Barnet Magistrates Court. Image June 2008 (built c. 1916 now closed)

Community Services

The last question related to the importance of community services to high streets. This is unquestionably a vital aspect of what we’ve termed as the ‘active’ town centre, encompassing the non-domestic land uses that collectively populate the surroundings of high streets and, given sufficient spatial connectivity, generate additional trips to and through them. The example given during the Q&A was of the magistrates court, which by virtue of its situation at the heart of local communities, populates the area with visitors and employees of the court system.

Chipping Barnet Magistrates Court c. 1960. © Crown Copyright/database right 2013. An Ordnance Survey/EDINA supplied service.

Our research has shown that notwithstanding the fluctuation between the proportions of different types of land uses, there is a steady state of each of the five main groups of land uses, as shown in the graph below: throughout the past 135 years community services have always been between 10-20% of all land uses within the high street environs of the four cases we’ve studied in detail (Barnet, Surbiton, South Norwood and Loughton). It seems self-evident that to maintain the stability of this ecosystem of interdependent activities we must take care to not lose this balance.

High Barnet land uses: proportions over time for an identical comparative area

As an aside to close this blog, it’s important to note that notwithstanding the role of magistrates courts in providing local justice, they also serve (and have always served) additional administrative functions, such issuing of licenses, warrants and summonses, the taking of oaths and approval of parish rates. Chipping Barnet’s court, for which there are records dating back at least to the 1750s, show this clearly.

All images ©UCL/EPSRC Adaptable Suburbs project

The Lunch Hour lecture can be viewed on Youtube here: .

Further Reading

Griffiths S., Vaughan L., Haklay M., and Jones C. E. (2008) The Sustainable Suburban High Street: Themes and Approaches, Geography Compass, 2, 1155-1188 download this from UCL Discovery

Jones P., Roberts M., and Morris L. (2007) Rediscovering Mixed-Use Streets: The Contribution of Local High Streets to Sustainable Communities. Joseph Rowntree Foundation & Polity Press, London. Download here:

Vaughan L., Jones C. E., Griffiths S., and Haklay M. (2009) The Spatial Signature of Suburban ‘Active’ Centres. In: Daniel Koch, Lars Marcus and Jesper Steen eds Seventh International Space Syntax Symposium Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Stockholm 127:121-127:113 download this from UCL Discovery


South Norwood town centre – traces of routes taken by individuals surveyed in the town centre vicinity in September 2008

The Adaptable Suburbs project has just published a working paper: the outcome of a pilot study on how patterns of walking in and around suburban town centres correspond to their morphology and land use patterns.

Most current research which looks at how planning and urban design can contribute to walkability compares built environment measures such as connectivity, diversity and land use. This working paper contributes to this domain by reporting on a pilot study which used space syntax measures of route choice to analyse self-reported walked routes and planned activities within three outer London suburban neighborhoods. Using a bespoke questionnaire on a wide array of activities coupled with self-reported route traces the study relates the through-movement potential of the street network to the intensity of routes and land use diversity through each of the three areas. Using data on people’s reasons for walking and actual routes, adjusting for differences between different groups of users, the aim was to see whether urban configuration affects patterns of movement in the suburban realm.

The findings show that route availability is associated with increased walking along routes with ‘active’ land uses, notwithstanding the variety of activities taken during a walk. They also reveal clear differences in usage patterns and trip length according to the degree of familiarity with the area as well as the location of physical barriers to walking routes, such as railway lines. Greater use of green spaces is found to be associated with their integration into the spatial network and local inter-visibility. The findings also tentatively suggest that routes with increased network centrality are more likely to be used for multi-purpose trips. The results suggest that improved planning and design can increase walking in an area, leading both to local vitality as well as potentially to the health of individuals.

It can be downloaded free from the project website.