In 1941 George Orwell discussed the socialogical and cultural importance of urban routes. In 2009 Fiona Scott champions his case using Ilford as her example. Here she discusses the continuous development of Ilford High Street
George Orwell, writing in 1941, picked up on the sociological and cultural importance of urban routes, writing that ‘the future of England is in the light industrial areas and along the arterial roads’. Long before, when London was still Londinium, six arterial roads provided routes in and out of the city, including Stane Street, Watling Street, Ermine Street and Portway.
The site of scholar Fiona Scott’s study is along the route of the road that linked Whitechapel and Colchester. It’s now the A118, and her area is the stretch of high street between Ilford and Seven Kings train stations in north-east London.
Though these routes are thoroughfares, Fiona is interested in the road as a destination in itself. The high street is very important to its local users, and has been for many years. ‘As a place grows from a hamlet to a village to a town,’ says Fiona, ‘the function of the high street remains basically the same. The high street has been central to London’s history and morphological development. As a typology it is robust and enduring.’
These areas have suffered from a woeful lack of attention, in study and in intervention, argues Fiona. ‘Despite the very English privateness we might associate with suburban living, there is a very important public realm
- even though it is not always about bustling town squares and plazas.’ Fiona’s surveying uncovered a great variety of building usage buried in and around her high street’s deep plan: light industrial units converted into flats,
temples, retail sheds and shopping arcades.
‘The challenge of the scholarship is how to marry the two disciplines: the architect who wants to do the design project and the strategist who formulates a framework in which others get the job done,’ says Fiona.
Too often, she holds, large-scale interventions are unable to work to the level of detail that makes these areas tick. The gyms, hairdressers and small offices that Fiona’s surveying and drawing rooted out are often
not factored into development plans that focus on ground-floor retail. At the November crit, she emphasised that regenerating these types of areas should not focus solely on bringing in large commercial players.
These are often to the detriment of the high street’s social role, she argued to the agreement of RPS’ director of urban design, Colin Pullen, citing a drawing of an Aldi superstore’s ungenerous street presence. Her work with DfL has given her the view of a strategist as well as a designer, and given her opportunities to bring the macro and micro together. She recently met Meadowcroft Griffin Architects, who have just been appointed as lead consultant to Redbridge Council’s area action plan. ‘We went over lots of maps and drawings, had a good discussion and I hope my work will give them a head start in some areas of their study,’ she says.
Though cagey about extrapolating from her site to ones across the country - ‘it’s difficult to do so without empirical data’ - Fiona’s work picks up on the words of Orwell, and could prove a boon to the preservation and continued development of England’s high streets.