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The myth of the dying high street

Far from creeping decline, high streets could become the linch-pins of a new metropolitan spirit, writes Mark Brearley

I recently visited a big Dutch new town. One that’s doing reasonably well. It’s all very green and neat but something seems to be missing − hidden away. The economy has been pushed beyond the trees, out of view. Offices and industry are away on their own, landscaped and screened off. The schools, colleges and healthcare buildings are lurking around the back on quiet suburban roads while the shops and community centres, and the places to get a meal or a drink, are squirrelled away in little precincts that you go to when you need to. It feels like that town turned out the way it did because people were thinking that the economy is something others do for you, or do to you, that it is OK for it to be ‘over there’, not exposed or integrated.

That Dutch planned place would have been emerging from the soil during the years that I first spent time in London. I came from the suburban south of Manchester, an area then fast adjusting itself to the pace and scale of the car, and to me London felt like a surprisingly old-fashioned city. This city showed itself to the world, with its economy and public life visible to all. It was the joyful opposite of the car-based and fractured urbanism of the outer Manchester suburbs, and the Dutch instant version. What I was seeing was a city of high streets, with an extrovert economy.

London is a huge conurbation throughout which much of what goes on, the activity we all share, is clustered around the streets where footfall and vehicles flow. Now I am convinced that this time-battered urban structure, which for so long seemed anachronistic, is our most prized urban asset, ready for the future. It is a rich reference for the tomorrows of cities around the world as they grow and reshape, as they respond to the surprise crumbling of the mobility-by-roads-is-the-main-theme-for-the-future consensus. That global shift, still fragile, but unmistakable, couples with the rising popularity of urban lifestyles. While reasoned critique of that 20th-century consensus has been burgeoning since the late 1950s, it has taken until today for aspirations to align on a sufficient scale to change the main trajectory, and for it to start to feel as though the process of urban disaggregation could be slowing, could even be reversing. Stand back, notice that this shift is happening, this spontaneous moderation of the role of the car, and the city of this century looks very different from what we have long assumed. That shift cuts away the argument, popular of late, that the high street is weakening, that efforts should focus on shrinkage and consolidation, on finding niche roles and accepting being secondary. The reverse is what we want and what could now happen.

Taken together, London’s 600 high streets (yes 600) are a vast phenomenon, and so everyday that we all forgot to notice them as remarkable. Place them end-to-end and they would thrive on for about 500 kilometres, from Highbury Corner along the Great North Road and all the way to the Scottish border. Three weeks to walk it, if you kept your pace up, and each step of the way you would pass a vibrant and visible economy. Sometimes rough, struggling, battered, and as often prosperous, sparkling, improving. Some parts are thin, just a shallow crust around the residential areas beyond, but elsewhere London’s high streets fold and loop, along side streets, rear streets, arcades and malls, big lobbies and foyers, yards, estates, multi-user buildings, with workspaces and industry, offices and trade-counters.

‘Goodbye garden cities, drive-through restaurants, drive-in garden centres, drive-to shopping centres, town and leisure centres, nodes and neighbourhood hubs’

These high-street places host much more than just shops, about half the jobs they host are from other activities. This is where London is at its most effervescent and available, and that includes what’s around the back, hidden away and humdrum, such as along Hassop Road with its dozens of car repairers, working in parallel to Cricklewood Broadway, and hundreds of others like it. Take a walk east along the route that runs for 51km across London from Uxbridge to Romford, via Oxford Street, for example, and you will find the front doors of about five and a half thousand businesses and institutions, where 80,000 people work. That’s as many as at Canary Wharf, just in a single strip. These diverse, lively, and entrepreneurial places remind us, loud and clear, that the economy is not an abstract external force but it is all of us; our daily exchanges, our enthusiasm and initiative.

Tottenham in north London also has one of those car repair clusters, north of the Tube station. Up there is a strikingly mixed part of London, rich in many ways even though battered and short on prosperity. Gathered around the old enfilade of high streets heading towards Hertford, alongside the shops and cafés, there is a library, the town hall, swimming pool and gyms, the police station, advice places, easy-access office spaces. Around the back with the car repairers is a high-quality wholesale bakery, a small new brewery, and a new supermaket. Over to the east, a short walk away in the industrial areas, there’s the factory that makes military dress uniforms, another that makes bespoke light fittings, the Gina luxury shoe factory, the big pitta bakeries, artists’ studios, printers, joiners and metal fabricators, cash-and-carries and trade warehouses. There are plenty of places to worship, places to hear and make music, to play pool. There are pubs and clubs, schools and colleges, banks, a post office, a couple of markets, and hairdressers. This is a sample of a bewildering array of activities that help each other, that we can all see, that provide for us and that encourage us to act, each in our own way, as part of that giant self-driven effort, the city and its economy, that we all make and push forward collectively.

Tottenham is a locality with plenty of problems, where riots flared up in the summer of 2011, where there is deprivation and dysfunction. But it is also a superb host for enterprise. It is the extrovert high-street-hooked economy in places such as this that encourages actions, each day as it goes about its regular business. It is the gathering of city life around street that is part of a wider metropolitan continuity, and in the depth behind and beyond, that reminds us how to arrange a good city, where moving and arriving blur, where we don’t only drive, where all come together to provide for each other, the essentials and the luxuries, with pragmatism and pleasure.

London is the city that invented the modern high street, and in spite of itself, regardless of many bruising decades, they are still strong, ready to go further becoming ever more of a focus for city burgeoning, getting longer, not shorter, more intense and mixed, with more depth, more fun and cared about, more alive and extraordinary.

Something has adjusted in our idea of what makes a good city. The last century feels like a distant past. Now it is possible to say farewell to Clarence Perry and the whole flow of 20th-century city-shaping ideas. So long Abercrombie, Athens Charter, circles and segregation. Goodbye garden cities, drive-through restaurants, drive-in garden centres, drive-to shopping centres, town and leisure centres, nodes and neighbourhood hubs. Hello high-street places, longer and deeper − linch-pins of the new metropolitan spirit, an organic refreshing of the civic, a bold way forward for the city of continuities and of mix, an extrovert and shared city. We thought we would have to hunt far and wide, but there it is on Tottenham High Road, the big urban idea for the current century, the city of high streets.

Vaso Michailidou

Vaso Michailidou


Lucinda Rogers is known for her reportage drawings of London and New York. She illustrated the Dictionary of Urbanism by Robert Cowan. At present she is developing a series of drawings of buildings and trades in east London

Originally from Greece, Vaso Michailidou is a UK-based illustrator whose layered and brightly coloured work can be see at his website


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