There has been a heavy dose of doom and gloom yet again about the high street/main street recently – from the closure of multiple retailers to disappointing footfall figures. Yet I have also come across some intriguing grass roots projects that are aimed at boosting local businesses and neighborhoods. Here are three:
First there is the new-ish phenomenon of Cash Mobs: “The general idea is to encourage people to go into small, local businesses and spend their money, en masse, to give the business owner a little bit of economic stimulus. We’d help businesses grow, we’d make people happy, we’d get stuff for ourselves, have a great time, and maybe we’d get a drink to celebrate afterward,” (http://cashmobs.wordpress.com/about-us/). I love the fact that it not only gets people excited about supporting their local shops and restaurants, but also brings them into contact with one another (one of the aims is to meet three people you don’t already know over the course of the evening). The general guidelines for setting up a Cash Mob can be found here. So far, it looks like Cardiff and Orkney are running Cash Mobs in the UK, and they have been running successfully in US and other international cities since mid-2011.
Other projects are designed along the same lines as Kickstarter, the funding platform that lets people pledge money to support a creative endeavor such as a music CD, book or film. One of these so-called crowdfunding projects is Lucky Ant, which helps finance a local business’ improvement or expansion. Lucky Ant is currently featuring a New York ice cream shop called Victory Garden (apparently they specialize in goat-milk soft-serve ice cream) that is seeking a new “grab ‘n go” fridge to expand their offering into the realm of sandwiches and salads. There is a tiered reward system for sponsors, depending on the amount pledged, so local shoppers get a treat in addition to knowing they’ve helped out a favorite business.
Along a similar vein, In Our Back Yard (IOBY) is aimed at supporting local environmental campaigns. Started in New York City, the project has helped neighborhood groups with community composting, raising chickens and more. I think this is a great idea for town centre clean-up days (which actually do need some sponsorship), guerrilla gardening, or even to fund hanging baskets and floral displays to perk up the high street.
The beauty is that these are all ideas that can work anywhere. Now I just need to think about bringing them to a north-west London town centre near me!
At first, it’s hard to imagine what could possibly go wrong with a large-scale urban tree planting program. Greening the streets checks lots of boxes when it comes to environmental amenity and health, and it’s the type of initiative that ranks quite high on many an urban regeneration wish list. But – as a recent article in New York’s City Limits discusses in great depth – you have to think about the long, long life of those trees, not just celebrate when they first go into the ground.
The article provided a crucial reminder that anything you install into the urban environment has to be maintained. Boring perhaps, but true. And if it’s damaged, it will probably need to be removed or repaired. And those things all incur costs often far above the one-off cost of planting the trees. That’s true for anything from benches to pavement stones to street lighting. Sadly, troughs of flowers or plants – lovely in the photos of Britain in Bloom! – are often particular victims of minor vandalism and theft.
Discouraging (especially at these times of budget crunches) – yes. Insurmountable – no. City Limits concluded by highlighting the work of a New York tree charity that deploys teams of citizen pruners and educators. For me, increasing local involvement and taking some form of responsibility for our streets is just as important as anything the city installs or pays for. Getting that idea across to more communities may be a long-term project, but fortunately, so are the trees.
Reading through the news today, a couple of different stories caught my eye, so here they are.
First, an article in the Tottenham and Wood Green Journal cited a recent planning case that probably doesn’t come up all that often: the problem of too many churches. Yes, one street in the London borough of Haringey has been virtually over-run with church goers after eight different places of worship opened. Clusters are not uncommon in many industries – take shoe shops or hi-tech companies for example – but is religion really one of them?
The article brought up a good point, which is that the dominance of one activity can actually cause harm to an area. This seems obvious if we think of the late night economy, betting shops, or take aways. In this case the problem – in addition to not having obtained planning consent for change of use from industrial to place of worship – was that the churches were “squeeze(ing) out other prospective businesses” that might contribute more. So, traffic, parking problems and neighbor complaints aside, it boils down to an interesting economic development case. Let’s hope the churches find other, happier, homes and that new enterprises starts to fill those empty buildings.
The other story that grabbed me concerns the Oxford Street Christmas Lights, which were switched on November 1 by girl group The Saturdays. This may quite possibly be a record for earliest switch-on ever. The consensus seems to be that the bright and early switch-on is a reflection of retailer worries. According to the Retail Gazette, high streets are expected to again see a decline in Christmas spend this year as internet retailing grows. Oxford Street may be one of the world’s leading retail destinations, but its stores still need to have shoppers ready and willing to spend (not just look at the pretty decorations).
Here’s TimeOut London’s link to the major Christmas lights around London. Local council websites will have information about their high street events too. Don’t forget your high street this holiday season.
Many a town or city center dreams of developing a thriving downtown café culture. My earlier post about regeneration plans in Belfast, for example, cited plans for a scheme that is centered around a pedestrianized café district. It’s more rare to hear of a city trying to diminish an already popular café corridor. But that seems to be what is happening in Istanbul, Turkey. According to a recent report in the Guardian, the city is cracking down on outside dining in an area long known for its al fresco bars and dining establishments.
Of course there are two sides to every argument, and in this case, the city is claiming that there have been complaints about rubbish on the streets and difficulty navigating through the maze of tables and chairs on the sidewalks. Their solution to the problem – which seems to allow owners to set up some sort of balcony area – comes with a high price tag.
But the price of losing outside dining space may be even higher as staff are being laid off and diner numbers are dwindling. The article makes a good point that the bars and restaurants there are part of a larger economy – if they start to close it will also hurt food and drink suppliers.
So the question is, how can they get the balance right? Coming in and seizing outdoor furniture – which has apparently happened – is probably not the best approach. Working with the business owners to come up with a plan would certainly be better.
Istanbul’s situation reminded me a little of London’s Soho district, an area whose popularity has required clever management. The problems there range from crime and drug abuse to street urination, dirty streets and noise pollution. Westminster Council implemented a comprehensive Soho Action Plan a few years ago to tackle the area’s problems without putting the clubs, restaurants, bars and other area attractions out of business. My advice to Istanbul: just have a read.
Today I came across a new term – locavesting. In fact, it’s the title of a recently published book, Locavesting: The Revolution in Local Investing, by Amy Cortese. As she says on her website: “The idea is to earn profits while supporting your local community. Locavesting is about investing in Main Street.” From policemen in Michigan joining together to save their local donut shop to New Yorkers helping stump up the funds to start a new neighborhood bookstore – it’s all locavesting, and apparently it’s part of a whole new grassroots movement. I’m intrigued. In fact, I’m off to buy a copy of her book – more to come.
I hear a lot about containers. My husband’s family business is shipping, and containers are the key element – aside from the ships that is. Getting them where they are supposed to go, when they are supposed to be there (and often beating the competition to get into port) is vital. But what happens to containers once they’ve been retired? Many containers get their pink slips long before they’re ready. Often, it’s just too pricey to ship the empty containers back to where they came from.
In recent years, one of the most common ways to give containers a second life has been to put them to work as an architectural component. Once you start looking, containers seem to be everywhere – schools, offices, homes, office buildings, and shopping centers. Prefab or emergency housing? You bet. Today, I came across a new project in Brooklyn called De Kalb Market. Developed by Urban Space – a specialty market company that created London’s Camden Lock in the 1970s, and operates markets around New York City – with Youngwoo Architects, it is the latest incarnation of an artisanal urban market.
Constructed of 22 used containers, the market contains restaurants, shops, a picnic area and small city farm: all very Brooklyn. And that’s exactly the point. Most of the vendors are Brooklyn or New York based in origin, and the market was devised as a space for start-ups as well. A once empty lot is now a haven of fancy cupcakes and other foodstuffs (such as Sour Puss Pickles!) and fashionable retail. Plus, some neglected containers have found a new home.
I remember my first encounter with the London tube map. It was 1996 and I was a tourist. I stood there staring at it, the colored lines blurring into one as I tried to figure out where I was and where I was going.
After living in London for awhile, and getting better acquainted with the tube, I realized something other Londoners have long known. The tube map doesn’t actually correspond very well to the city’s geography. Accuracy is not its strong point.
Having lived in Manhattan, I was accustomed to a grid, and a compact – if extremely dense – urban experience. London felt like one big sprawl – and in my eyes, the tube map was part of a conspiracy to hide the ugly truth. That made me (inordinately) angry at the time and I mentally deducted a point from London in my own personal livability index.
A designer called Mark Noad has recently created his own version of the London tube map – which you can see here. And the Economist’s blog fills in some of the history of the tube map and why it looks the way it does.
I still don’t like London’s sprawl – but I do like this new map.