Tag Archives: England

Saving Main Street: Creativity in Retail.

15 Apr

It may have been a really long time since you’ve visited a handfull of the remaining American main streets. Perhaps if you live in a small town far away from a city or suburban sprawl, or if you have gone on vacation recently to a place where people spend good money to walk down one of these “endangered species”, you may be lucky. But if you are like the majority of Americans and live in a city or suburban sprawl it has probably been months. The truth is that when retail started to the meet the demands of the automobile instead of the demands of the pedestrian, main streets throughout America were given a death sentence. Ever since we realized the placemaking, urban design, and historical value of these lost elements of our urban fabric, we have been trying to recreate them through our new urbanist and lifestyle center developments.

We lost our main streets a while ago, but other countries have been behind the curve. As many of you know I’ve spent some time practicing in the United Kingdom, and visit often. In some cases, it feels like England is 30 years behind us in their advancement in commercial and retail environments. And I mean that as a complement. In most places in England you can still go to the butchers, the bakers, and the newsagents. For us, these are the dreams of Mayberry. But what has become more in jeopardy over the past decade is England’s high streets.

A typical American main street and English high street.

A typical American main street and typical English high street. (Image: Atlantic Cities and GOOD)

There are many threats that high streets face now, especially during the economic downturn. Even in an environment of more sustainable planning based on limiting sprawl and centralizing development around strong transit links, high streets are losing to out-of-town superstores and American-like super-sized shopping malls. While I have not researched this issue thoroughly, I have spent enough time in the UK to witness some of the biggest offenders: Bluewater Shopping Centre in Kent, Lakeside in Essex, Metro Centre in Newcastle and the Trafford Centre in Manchester. All four of these easily attract regional shoppers through an abundance of free parking, direct transit links from the center of nearby towns, and a large collection of the nations most popular retailers. The building form is typical: large structures surrounded by a sea of parking with poor (if any) pedestrian links to anywhere. High streets serving local populations with the daily necessities don’t stand a chance – and soon the butcher will become an extinct species just as it has in America.

Bluewater, Lakeside, Metro Centre, and Trafford Shopping Centres in England (Images: Webb Aviation, Above All Images, The Telegraph)

Bluewater, Lakeside, Metro Centre, and Trafford Shopping Centres in England (Images: Webb Aviation, Above All Images, The Telegraph)

But on the other hand, other cities have used modern shopping malls as a redevelopment tool for their center cities and high streets. In Reading, 36 miles west of London and Birmingham, in the middle of the country, two shopping malls have brought economic vitality and social activity. These two well-planned retail developments can serve as an example of how America can breath new life into the main streets that still remain.

These shopping malls accomplish two things in their urban form while bringing economic health to the center of the city:

  1. Enhance the health and vitality of the High Street
  2. Enliven public spaces in the center of the city

The Oracle Shopping Centre

The Oracle in Reading is a 22 acre site completed in 2000 that increased the retail square footage in the town centre by a third. Its shape and interior path is part of a “leisure trail” that goes through town. Instead of locating it anywhere in the middle of the city centre, the main entrance of the shopping mall was integrated into the street wall of the high street. The interior shopping area of the mall provides a natural pedestrian connection between the River Kennet, the high street, and other outdoor shopping streets. Instead of taking away pedestrian traffic from the high street, the Oracle instead enhances it and allows it to be the primary retail access point in the city centre.

Also, the Oracle doesn’t turn its back on the rest of the city, but instead creates outdoor public spaces along the River Kennet, celebrating its heritage and returning it to a central role in the Reading. Active ground floor spaces enliven the public spaces, creating a place for festivals and events throughout the year. The design of the Oracle achieves all of this in the urban form, while meeting the modern retail standards and proving the shopping experience demanded of the market.

A diagram of the Oracle Shopping Centre and how it relates to the high street and the River Kennet.

A diagram of the Oracle Shopping Centre and how it relates to the high street and the River Kennet.

The main entrance to the Oracle Shopping Centre, enhancing the street wall of the high street.

The main entrance to the Oracle Shopping Centre, enhancing the street wall of the high street.

The Oracle Shopping Centre along the River Kennet (Image: Trip Advisor)

The Bullring – Birmingham

The Bullring in Birmingham replaced one of England’s original indoor malls in 2003 and hosts 36.5 million visitors a year. Its design is unique by offering over 1,300,000 square feet of modern retail space, while maintaining a physical pedestrian connection between the high streets and a historic public space, The Bullring, which has served as a market square since the middle ages and is the home of St. Martin’s Church, located here since 1263. This site is historically sensitive, and instead of maintaining the segregation between the outdoor shopping streets and the market square as the older mall had done, the Bullring restored the original pedestrian connections through the site. The new structure nestles one level underground and splits the upper level in two parts. Here, the high streets continue between the buildings, maintaining the scale of the surrounding urban form.

Behind the mall, the high street slopes towards St. Martin’s Church and the structure provides active ground floor spaces that brings activity and vibrancy to the once forgotten public space. Transforming the historic center of the city to a place of entertainment 24 hours a day, has restored it as one of the main identities of the city.

A diagram of the Bullring Shopping Centre and how it relates to the high streets and the historic public space, The Bullring.

A diagram of the Bullring Shopping Centre and how it relates to the high streets and the historic public space, The Bullring.

The main entrance to the Bullring Shopping Centre is a continuation of Birmingham's high street.

The main entrance to the Bullring Shopping Centre is a continuation of Birmingham’s high street.

The Bullring Shopping Centre creates activity in the public plaza and celebrates the city's landmark historic church.

The Bullring Shopping Centre creates activity in the public plaza and celebrates the city’s landmark historic church. (Image: The Daily Mail)

American cities in most cases do not have the large scale, architecturally rich, and well-established main streets as those in England. The United Kingdom continues to make our same mistakes, but a couple of cities have saved their high streets as a result of foresight in urban planning and good urban design. These should act as an example to planners in the United States who continue to try to enliven our historic main streets through programming. While these programs are valuable in their own right, planners should consider not trying to save what we have in its current form, but instead transforming main streets to meet the modern retail demands of shoppers and developers. Let’s take a page from Reading and Birmingham’s book, and make a conscious effort to locate the uses that drive unsustainable suburban sprawl in the city center in a well-designed way that enhances the historic fabric that we have preserved. Let’s put Main Streets back where they belong…

Guest Post: Meditations on Mobility in England

11 Feb

I am happy to introduce a new guest post series on this blog. It’s my goal to create a place where lovers of the built environment can share their thoughts, observations, and passions. Please let me know if you’re interested in writing!

My choice of first guest blogger was an easy one. I first met Franny when I was 16: we lived across the hall from each other at boarding school. We didn’t know it at the time, but we would both become urban designers and planners. After losing touch for over a decade, we recently reconnected through social media and a mutual friend. She moved to England at the same time I left England. It’s been a joy to share thoughts, build my blog, and enter a design competition with someone who shares a trans-Atlantic knowledge of planning. Enjoy the post and please check out her blog, Ink and Compass, here.

I spent the last two years of my life in Cambridge, MA, which is notorious in the US for being one of the least car-friendly cities in North America. There are one-way streets, roads that double back on themselves, lots of no-left-turn signs, and lots of pedestrians, buses, cyclists, and other cars. Even though I had a car while I lived there, I loathed to drive it anywhere but the grocery store.

When I moved to Cambridge, UK, I left my car behind. The city is small and compact. The terrace house architecture means that few houses come with dedicated parking spots, and on-street parking is hard to come by. Although most streets are two-way, they are so narrow that they can accommodate a car and a cyclist, if both slow down and pass carefully. When two cars meet going opposite directions, an elaborate dance happens.

A friend tried to drop me off at my house last night, but even after four months here, I was foiled by the labyrinth of dead-end streets in my neighborhood, which I have only navigated on foot. We finally gave up when she got me within a few minutes’ walk of my house.

In short: you have to be nuts to want a car in my neighborhood. Of course, people still have them, and car ownership is still an aspirational thing in England, as it is elsewhere. People feel strongly here, as they do in the US, that policies that discourage car ownership are an infringement on their freedom.

And yet: in 2008, the UK had only 525 cars per 1000 people, while the US had 828. What are the fundamental differences in our cultures that the US has 60% higher car-to-resident ratio?

The most obvious thing is the built environment. Below is a map of my neighborhood. I’ve included the most efficient route between my house (point A) and the nearby commercial strip, Mill Road, in a car. Some of the streets are one-way, but most are bisected by cute little cut-throughs. Most allow for emergency access. The streets are also so narrow that driving and parking can be extremely unpleasant; see below for a typical street.  And there are all sorts of very small ways in which the design of streets is more accommodating to cycles (without making things worse for automobiles). My favorite is that many of the old homes have hitching rings that have been re-purposed or replaces as cycle lock-up site.

Cambridge has also invested heavily in keeping cars out of the city center. While this is partly to do with pollution, congestion, quality of life, etc, I think it mostly has to with the fact that there is simply not space for all the cars. The city has five park-and-ride locations outside the city. There is a centrally-located bus depot and a brand-new bus rapid transit line with accompanying cycle path.

Courtesy railforthevalley.com

Which brings me to my next point: the UK also has an extensive off-road bike network. Although in many places it is not well-lit, which makes year-round use a problem, it does provide a sheltered and safe means of transport for people who are not confident sharing the street with cars. I did my friend Lauren’s 10 mile commute in December, just for an adventure, and I was amazed by how much of the route was on dedicated paths.

Because of the urban design considerations, and the difficulty driving, many people elect to cycle where Americans would throw in the towel. In my neighbourhood, it is common to see two or three children strapped to their parents’ cycles, or riding in a cargo trailer.  I personally like the ones that have a front cabin for children; I’ve written about ways to encourage riding with childrenat Ink & Compass.

Of course, urban design is not destiny. There is also the fact that the UK has no domestic source of oil and no major car manufacturers to howl about petrol prices, so the cost of car ownership is higher here. The bus system is privatized and covers more territory because of the need to serve small villages, reducing the isolation of people who live in rural or quasi-rural areas. And while I am new to the country, it seems to me that buses have less stigma – less association with poverty – than in the US.

There are many occasions, both here and in the US, where car ownership is necessary or practical, but in England, people do not suffer from dramatically decreased mobility despite having far fewer cars per capita. There are all sorts of lessons that the US could take from the UK to begin to move toward less dependence on personal cars.

Franny Ritchie, of the planning & geography blog Ink and Compass and is a recent graduate of MIT’s urban planning program.  She moved from Cambridge, MA to Cambridge, UK this past October, and she’s thrilled to be the first guest blogger at At Helm of the Public Realm.

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