Thursday, 13 June 2013

Multilingual Streets, London's Litmus Strips of Change

Last week I attended Suzi Hall's talk and discussion - Multilingual Streets, London's Litmus Strips of Change Sensitive and imaginative, Hall's work sits very comfortably beside my own, and the Ordinary Streets research project at LSE is a mine of fascinating information, and a pdf of the slides in the talk is available here

Here are my notes about Hall's talk and the subsequent discussion:

High streets are places of many languages and cultures in very close proximity to one another. The shops are highly adaptive, and are often subdivided to accommodate very small scale business (eg. renting out a single hair dressing chair). This means that the high street supports the 'stepping stones' of business development for new arrivals, who can read the cultural and spatial set-up of the high road and often start a new business within a week of stepping off the plane.

The turnover of apparently poor high streets (eg. Rye Lane) is actually frequently greater than the turnover of affluent high streets (eg. Muswell Hill), even though they are viewed in the popular imagination as 'blighted'. Westfield, for example, provides fewer jobs and contains fewer businesses that an equivalent sized section of Peckham, yet took vast infrastructural state investment to build, whereas Peckham is effectively free. By pursuing regeneration through prestigious developments and high end 'retail offer' the real source of economic success on the changing high street (ie. adaptability in the face of rapid changes & immigration) is being overlooked. 

One reason for this is that councils do not have the means to understand the actual metabolism of the high street, because they use the wrong ways to find out about it (eg. phone and paper surveys by large companies such as Experian which do not reveal the important details, or are simply ignored by shopkeepers and business owners who do not want to be involved with officialdom). Hall proposed the solution of 'on-street events' which bring people together to they can mutually understand each other (in Peckham there is an affluent artists' community but their influence is invisible on the high road), but also talked about trade associations and partnerships who could advocate for the small business owners and help to allow the value of high streets to be recognised. It wasn't entirely clear whether she was keen on their recognition solely in economic terms (a la Mark Brearly) or in cultural terms. Both arguments are strong and she made them convincingly - although suggestions of means to make this occur were less convincing. 

In terms of differences between our work, she is clearly focused on the social/economic aspects of the high road and (for want to a better term) the 'spatial' arrangement is secondary. Some of her drawings were certainly of the 'depth' of the high road (which she calls 'one layer back') but she does not consider the relationship between the high road and two layers, or fifty layers 'back'. Her great advantage is that she is lucid and easy to understand (which was not immediately apparent in her PhD) and her ideas are attractive and 'saleabl'e. She also has some interesting survey methods which I am keen to discuss with her. We are very much on the same wavelength.

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