Figure 1: a hedgerow on a walk between Radcot and Kelmscot. Image from:

I’ve just found an old newspaper cutting showing Max Hooper’s obituary, which is also laid out here in this Guardian piece:

Hooper was an English botanist who devised a system for dating hedges. Starting with a selection of several hundred old hedges, which he dated according to their appearance in old deeds, maps, charters, and the Domesday Book, he counted the number of species in a 30-yard stretch along each of them. He found that the number of tree species correlated with the age of the hedge in centuries and that hedgerows tend to have a much greater diversity of plants and animals and tend to be thicker, taller and more continuous as they increase in age ( this became known as ‘Hooper’s Hedgerow Hypothesis’).

The reason I’m interested in Hooper, is that, thanks to a chance conversation with Professor Julienne Hanson during our suburban town centres research project, when we were puzzling over the significance of land use diversity in the longevity of suburban high streets, we were struck by the possible analogy between high streets and hedgerows. The following is a link to the conference paper, An ecology of the suburban hedgerow, or: how high streets foster diversity over time, which we wrote on the subject.

The paper builds on the proposition by Penn and colleagues (2009) that cities provide a structured set of social, cultural and economic relations which help to shape patterns of diversity in urban areas. Far from being a random mixing, it could be said that urban systems are akin to ecological systems where flora and fauna are closely interrelated and in which the richness and evenness of species in a community contributes to the overall resilience of the ecosystem. This study goes further in suggesting how a variety of building types, sizes and street morphologies are more likely to propagate patterns of co-presence over time – providing the minimal but essential everyday ‘noise’ without which generalised sustainability and liveability agendas are likely to flounder when faced with questions of implementation in particular places. This morphological diversity, it is argued, enables the development of niche markets in smaller centres which can support new forms of socio-economic activity. These ideas were explored further in my chapter called “High Street Diversity, part of Suburban Urbanities: suburbs and the life of the high street (2015).

Figure 2: High Street Dversity. In order to explore this idea we looked at the distribution of segments according to residential and non-residential activity and also adopted ideas for ecology based on the notion that thriving eco-systems required richness of species – we also looked at the number of different types of activities that occurred on each segment – to gain an understanding of activity richness. The initial results reveal a clear long tail where there are fewer non-residential segments with fewer segments with have a larger number of different activities.



Hooper, Max. 1970. Dating Hedges. Area 2 (4):63-65.

Penn, Alan, Irini Perdikogianni, and Chiron Mottram. 2009. Chapter 11: The Generation of Diversity. In “Designing Sustainable Cities: Decision-making Tools and Resources for Design”, edited by R. Cooper, G. Evans and C. Boyko. Chichester: Wiley Blackwell.

Vaughan, Laura. 2015. Chapter 7: High Street Diversity. In “Suburban Urbanities: suburbs and the life of the high street“, edited by L. Vaughan. London: UCL Press.







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.

A new report out this week by the RIBA ‘Building Futures’ think-tank provides a vision for a future of an ‘active Third Age’ and the possible impact it might have on the built environment.

Pages from MID_RIBA_Silver_linings_161013_v2

The report’s findings are very much in tune with the work of the Adaptable Suburbs project and indeed the about-to-commence ‘Street Mobility’ project at UCL, which will be researching the impact of ‘community severance’ on older people. (The connection is  not entirely coincidential, as the Street Mobility project’s PI, Dr Jenny Mindell, was an expert advisor on the RIBA’s report).

I highlight here some of the key recommendations of the report:

  • For Housing: the authors maintain that the current ad hoc changes being made to housing to adapt to new social needs (such as extended families living under one roof) demand a revival of the old mansion block housing form. In this way, ideas developed by the co-housing movmeent will enable families to expand within a single unit, sharing facilties and enabling co-dependence between older and younger members of the same family (as well as independence for the individuals within it).
  • This links neatly to the report’s observations regarding the relationship between the home and community. They maintain that this type of home will be rooted in “an increased emphasis on the relationship to nature, inviting the tending of shared gardens and the communal growing of food” – thus extending the private domain into semi-private and semi-public domains with new “multigenerational neighbourliness and wider support network that can open new opportunities to address the spiralling cost of both childcare and elderly care.” This may be a rather optimistic vision, but it is important to note how our own research suggests the importance of a spatial interrelationship between the residential hinterland and the public domain of a neighbourhood; namely, the high street.
  • The report dedicates a whole section to ‘The High Street Revived’, which, we would agree wholeheartedly, highlights how “by their very nature, high streets developed centrally so people could walk to them” and this natural walkability will be increasingly important in a low-carbon future. The report maintains that high streets will no longer be retail focused (in fact, our research shows that they never have been). Instead, they have the potential to incorporate new forms of social and communal functions: hosting local services and supporting functions such as playgrounds next to a local crèche or school, to support the daily presence of old and young and with the added benefits that intergenerational contact can provide.
  • The revival of the high street as a social hub means – the report states – that we can start to see its embedded potential to be a place for small businesses to start up, for new services (such as 3-D printing) to be provided, for libraries to be used as lifelong learning facilities and so on. Indeed – I would argue – the high street is envisioned as the heart of a new form of many of the small-scale non-domestic uses that we have observed in our surveys of London’s land uses over the past 150 years.


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

The Lamb Inn, Surbiton © Anthony Falla

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


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.


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.


This is the first in a series of short blogs devised by the Adaptable Suburbs project team to get across some of the preliminary findings of our 3.5 year project.


High Street Loughton – then and now – showing view towards post office (*Left-hand image from Percy Ambrose: ‘Reminiscences of a Loughton Life’)

1. The high street is not dead

There are too many myths floating around about the apparent death of the high street. It is true to say that it is undoubtedly going through change, but then again high streets have always changed. Back in the 1930s there were concerns that the coming of the department store would be the death-knell for traditional shop, but of course history has proven that not to be the case.

No one is saying that the loss of major stores such as Woolworth’s is a trivial matter, but to equate the health of the high street solely with the number of closed shops is to over look the fact that the high street is a much broader (spatial – as well as economic and social) entity, which when functions well, it can weather difficulties such as the current recession by adapting itself to change.

The current discourse of the apparent ‘decline’ or ‘death’ of the high street is premised on an image of the ‘high street’ that has arguably never existed. Our research shows that change and continuity are both part of the story of town centres and a historical reading of such environments finds that they are remarkable more for their persistence and adaptability than for the apparent dramatic change that the current concerns would suggest is occurring. Alongside the very sad loss of jobs (and it is not coincidental, the loss of longstanding businesses is particularly upsetting – part of a very British nostalgia for times gone by) are very interesting new models of town-centre type activities emerging, including sites of production, workshops and small businesses, local work hubs and so on (as can be seen in the interesting work by Nesta and Design Council CABE for their ‘Compendium for the civic economy‘, as well as the work of Gort Scott with Matthew Carmona on High Street London).

One of the aspects we feel should be better understood is what makes some high streets able to weather change whilst others are less resilient. From an urban design point of view, we are studying whether this can be attributed to morphology, built form diversity, accessibility and connectivity, the flexibility of use classes and so on. Alongside this we need to understand better how the spatial context gives opportunity to different overlapping social networks to emerge and thus sustain local centres over time. This is what the next phase of the project will be working towards addressing.

A 21st century Agora?

July 28, 2011

Urban Pollinators’ response to Mary Portas’ high streets review makes interesting reading. They recognise the importance of town centres beyond the narrow definition of commercial centres; needing to be ‘multifuncitonal social centres’. They state they need to be for “enjoyment, creativity, learning, socialising, culture, health and wellbeing and democratic engagement: a 21st century agora”.

There is a recognition of the importance of local spatial layouts (here they cite Jan Gehl’s seminal work on ‘Cities for People’: ‘wanting to go into town is different from wanting or needing to shop. It is about an experience. It is about sociability and relaxation, creativity and being part of something you cannot get at home or at work.’

There is also a recognition of the importance of larger scale connectivity and design considerations such as maintaining a diversity of ‘space typologies’ – ensuring a range in terms of ‘ownership, unit size, rental levels and lease types’. This is said to be crucial to make sure that local ventures can have access to affordable and flexible space and thus to the wider market at all stages of the economic cycle.

It’s worth looking at the second part of the report for the range of case studies of local projects that seem to be working.