Vague ramblings

Semi-arid suburbia revisited

Posted in St Albans, Urbanism by Ian Cundell on 4 March, 2014

Back in 2010 I wrote the following for UK Regeneration (original here):

Take a look around your local town centre – whether in a suburban area or smaller town doesn’t matter, the essence will remain the same. What do you see? The chances are that it will include some or all of the following:

  • Vacant or under-utilised offices, or at the very least offices that have not seen a decent refurbishment in a decade or more;
  • A Tesco of some kind, but most likely with either “Metro” or “Express” appended;
  • A pound store which will probably have replaced a Sainsbury’s or a Woolworth;
  • A shopping precinct that has never quite worked;
  • Pervasive parking controls that make “quick trip” shopping barely tenable;
  • Congestion OR pedestrianisation, or congestion displaced by pedestrianisation;
  • Outside London, busses of many colours, with routes that are scarcely comprehensible;
  • Noticeably fewer local enterprises occupying shops than in past years;
  • A Waterstones.
  • Some high-value town centre “apartment” schemes;
  • A least one decent-sized site that will have been subject to development proposals for as long as you can remember, but on which nothing has happened.

In your local paper there will be at least a couple of stories showing that local authorities have absolutely no grasp of the pressures faced by smaller businesses.

It won’t all be bad.

  • There is a reasonable chance that a local civic group or entrepreneur is leading efforts to revive a much-loved building (most likely a cinema, perhaps a theatre).
  • You may be lucky enough to have a town centre manager who takes his or her job way beyond mere management.

But these will all-to-often feel like efforts to push water up hill. Even in relatively successful town centres, the overall feeling is of a place that is less important than it was 20 years ago – less alive. And certainly less loved.

I call it Semi-Arid Suburbia. I always knew my geography degree would prompt a handy metaphor one day.

It isn’t an arid place, a desert – there is still life in suburban town centres. But it is less diverse, less exciting and less intense than it once was. It is semi-arid.

Partly this is related to the rise of out-of-town and edge-of-town retail and this is reasonably well understood.

But partly – and this is much less well understood – it is to do with those under-used offices, the silent neglect in our suburban landscape. There has been negligible rental growth, outside of central London and one or two other hot spots, for the fat end of two decades, not even enough to prompt decent refurbishment.

It is the legacy of the B1 use-class, that office-to-light industrial catch-all, a sign of a dreadful lack of imagination, and it is a cancer on our town centres.

And something needs to be done.

I revisit this because some Important People have finally caught up, in the shape of the Future Spaces Foundation (see here). There is a hint of apple pie thinking  – which is not necessarily a bad thing – but it is bang on about the obsession with protecting retail. The brutal truth is that most medium-sized towns have no future as significant retail centres: I concur with the thrust of FSF’s thesis. But think about those under-utilised offices have a role to play too, not just dead shops and Eric Pickles’s “one size fits all” solution of allowing unfettered conversion to residential is not the way to go. I’ll show why in a future blog.

Wouldn’t it be cool if there were communities of work and leisure in our smaller town centres?

 

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