Vague ramblings

The Zone of Death revisited

Posted in Business, St Albans, Urbanism by Ian Cundell on 27 March, 2014

Another revisit of one of my UK Regeneration posts. Original here. It is very much a companion item to Semi-Arid Suburbia and Nightlife and Nimbys.

The Zone of Death

I have a hypothesis – which I’m certainly not going to grace with the term theory – that has been knocking about my brain for a few weeks. If I were feeling melodramatic I’d call it the “Zone of Death” hypothesis.

In fact, I think I will.

The Zone of Death hypothesis rests on a straightforward posit: some towns are too big to be small, but too small to be big. It comes from a simple empirical observation: where I live the two biggest towns are St Albans and Hemel Hempstead, and two smaller towns are Harpenden and Berkhamsted.

St Albans and Hemel are reasonably successful business centres, with rather different formats: Maylands is a Hemel new town sprawl, that – for non-office uses at least – seems to work well, while smaller and rather cluttered industrial areas in St Albans show that congestion can be a sign of healthy demand.

But then we get to the town centres. Hemel is struggling, not really fit to compete with edge- and out-of-town stores, especially at Apsley. St Albans has some “banker” stores – Marks & Spencer, BhS and Tesco (albeit Metro), and before the credit crunch vacancy was zero. But even post-crunch rents are forcing out independent stores, while other parts of the city centre show signs of marginality. This has been aggravated by the epically stupid decision to ban parking from the St Peters Street service road, sending footfall tumbling – resulting in Pound stores and empty units. A school report for either town would say “Should do better.”

But in Harpenden and Berkhamsted we find two attractive and vibrant high streets, with small independent stores complementing pint-size Waitrose and other supermarkets. Harpenden has a population of around 30,000 while Berkhamsted is just over half that.

I found myself pondering what the common factors might be, and here are my starters for ten:

Parking

Both smaller towns have decidedly user friendly parking arrangements. In Berkhamsted the car parks by Tesco and Waitrose are inexpensive, while Harpenden permits free on-street parking in many areas for an hour.

Catchment

Let’s be candid, both towns have a relatively high proportion of middle class professionals in their catchment areas, but perhaps more importantly, neither town tries to “punch above its weight”. They are nice and niche places to go. Not for a long stay, it has to be said, but pleasant all the same

Attitude

Both of them show no fear at all of pavement culture, which gives a feel of both bustling activity and, perhaps paradoxically, a rather chilled out feel.

No visible fear of congestion

Neither town shows any real fear of congestion. That doesn’t mean that it is especially welcome, but there is a sense in both areas of minimal micro-management, of congestion as a cost of doing business.

It is not all good for towns in this size bracket – there is a reason Borehamwood is known locally as Bore-Em-Stiff, showing as it does many of the failings of post-War planning but few of the virtues. And yet, I feel there is something in the idea.

This analysis is, of course, more problematic for neighbourhoods within the contiguous built-up areas of metropolitan cities. But I would be willing to bet that a prima facie case for a similar pattern could be built after a couple of circuits of the North and South Circulars. My old stamping ground in Balham would be a good suburban candidate (despite Peter Sellars) for being too small for proper shops, but too large for charming shops.

These are the most starkly semi-arid areas we have, and I think it worth considering what their smaller neighbours can teach.

Little has changed since 2011, although it is worth noting that Harpenden has its fair share of charity stores – not usually a sign of health. But the fact is, when I need a get-out-of-the-house coffee break, I am as likely to drive to Harpenden as into St Albans, and when I have business meetings with colleagues from elsewhere on the M25 Berko is the place to go. Also, Balham is a bit more gentrified than I realised back then. Finally, I am perhaps a little less optimistic about the viability of some of the industrial sites in St Albans.

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