Much has been made about the death of the high street, but are those who urge regeneration ignoring the very real economic success of ethnically diverse micro-traders? Will Hurst reports
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The decline of the British high street has become something of a mantra. Four years ago David Cameron and Nick Clegg appointed ‘tsar’ Mary Portas to lead an independent review into how the high street could be reinvigorated. Nevertheless, its gradual abandonment by UK shoppers appears to have continued; the BBC reported recently that almost 1,000 shops closed last year – close to three times the 2013 total.
But is the local response to this problem in itself a problem? Do councils and their regeneration architects overlook areas of success and unwittingly damage innovative models of independent retail trade in their drive to smarten up and improve the high street? Is the best approach in some places for the architect to take a back seat or even to do nothing at all? These are some of the questions provoked by the research of Suzi Hall at the London School of Economics. Hall, an architect turned sociology professor, practised in her native South Africa for 10 years before coming to London.
Since 2012 she has studied the inner workings of what must be one of the most multi-ethnic streets in the world: Peckham’s Rye Lane in the London borough of Southwark. On a 1km-long stretch of this rather run-down urban street, Hall found 199 formal retail units populated by proprietors from more than 20 countries including Afghanistan, Iran, Jamaica, Kenya, Somalia, Tanzania, Vietnam, Ireland and England. But despite their diversity, the very different ethnic groups in Rye Lane thrive on collaboration. Almost a third of traders can speak four or more languages and a quarter of the shops are subdivided and sublet into smaller shops with shopkeepers from different parts of the globe sharing, in Hall’s words, ‘space, risk and prospect’.
Where once on Rye Lane you might have found a Woolworths or a Boots, you are now more likely to find a small mobile phone outlet operated by a Pakistani adjacent to a tiny nail salon run by a Jamaican with a Ugandan-operated Western Union money exchange outlet at the rear.
Such migrant traders often don’t have much of a voice in the corridors of power and planning departments. They also don’t mind too much about operating out of scruffy shopfronts, and seldom find their establishments frequented by the ‘other Peckham’ – the more embedded middle-class communities who live in Georgian and Victorian houses such as the nearby Bellenden Road conservation area.
Despite this, Hall found their model of ever-changing collaboration – or ‘urban mutualism’ – made them an economic success story. Shopkeepers were benefitting from high footfalls combined with the tendency of the typical Rye Lane shopper to go into a shop with one type of purchase in mind and to impulsively buy other additional goods or services while there.
‘We took something known, such as the Westfield shopping centre in Stratford, and compared it with Rye Lane,’ Hall explains. ‘We were actually able to show that Rye Lane produces more jobs, more retail units and higher rental yields for the local authority. A mobile phone operator in Rye Lane would need 1-2m2 of space but would produce a rental yield of £500 per m2 each month. That is comparable to Knightsbridge, which has the highest rental yields in the country.’
Hall argues that these highly flexible forms of micro-retail remain largely ‘invisible to the lens of power’, noting in a recent academic paper that Southwark Council had made moves to prevent any further subdivisions of retail spaces of 500m2 and above under future lease agreements.
She says: ‘For Southwark, the measure of success was perhaps a Giraffe, a Waterstones and perhaps a Pret, whereas in fact, Rye Lane was incredibly robust and vital both culturally and economically.’
Official bodies such as the council do seem to view Rye Lane as in need of regeneration, but is this view overly influenced by aesthetics and the opinions of those who rarely shop there – the other Peckham?
Critics certainly do argue that spiralling property speculation in this inner-London area combined with regeneration initiatives such as an ongoing £1.7 million Heritage Lottery Fund-supported restoration and refurbishment programme, have left it vulnerable to damaging top-down design interference.
FAT director Sean Griffiths has closely studied Hall’s work. ‘In its own way, Rye Lane has been designed, but it has not been designed by architects,’ he says. ‘At some point, Southwark will invite a group of people to “improve” Peckham Rye. They will “Allies and Morrison” it, and turn it into a cohesive piece of city with chain shops.
The idea that architecure will neaten everything up ignores the deeper cultural patterns
‘This is not about Allies and Morrison specifically, but is to do with the idea that architecture is about neatening everything up, and this can ignore the deeper cultural and economic patterns that exist in environments like Rye Lane. It’s the same sort of debate going on about Brixton market – it’s more than the threat of gentrification; it’s the threat of corporatisation and homogenisation.’
For its part, the council insists it has taken on board Hall’s research. Last year it established Peckham Co-Design, a process to improve consultation with local residents and businesses following a public backlash against a proposed revamp of the nearby Peckham Rye station area led by Network Rail and architect Weston Williamson.
Mark Williams, Southwark’s cabinet member for regeneration and new homes, says the council wants a ‘good balance and range of shops’ on Rye Lane to meet residents’ wide-ranging needs.
‘Our architects have been working closely with local people on these co-design projects, putting the local community at the heart of the work to understand their aspirations and vision for these key sites,’ he says.
One of the key architects involved is Landolt + Brown which, following the co-design process, has been appointed to work on improvements to Peckham Rye station square and a neighbouring building. Director Adam Brown says that there is room for design improvements to be made to Rye Lane but also argues that he and the council are keenly aware of Hall’s research.
‘I’m not just saying this because they’re my client – Southwark does seem to be committed to supporting local traders,’ he says. ‘Our project is about creating new space in front of the station and we can’t do that without losing some [retail] accommodation. But the council is making sure there are smaller spaces available; flexible leases that kind of thing.’
Brown argues that Rye Lane is ‘heavily weighted’ to Asian traders selling to African and Caribbean communities, adding: ‘Not all traders look after their shops and street fronts in the way you’d like, and there is a constant problem with boxes and other things being left on the street.’ But he also says he ‘agrees with the lessons’ of Hall’s research, and maintains that local businesses and not chains are the priority for projects like his.
The author of the research, who is a fan of Will Alsop’s nearby Peckham Library, pauses when asked whether there is a useful role for a regeneration architect on Rye Lane.
What is missing is a view of the whole
‘I’m unresolved,’ says Hall. ‘I do think there is a place for design, but I think what is missing is a view of the whole. The starting point is to recognise what is already there. The first act of design is the act of observation.’
Architects do need to be good observers and should look beyond the shock headlines about the high street to recognise innovative and unheralded retail areas such as Rye Lane. Such dynamic environments may not be neat, beautiful or fashionable but they work and they should be allowed to flourish. Here, more than anywhere, form really must follow function.
Watch LSE student Sophie Yetton’s short film Ordinary Streets - the inner workings of Peckham’s Rye Lane