Alan Partridge immortalised a pioneering transport innovation when in a 1997 episode he asked his radio audience: “What do you think about the pedestrianization of Norwich city centre?”. London Street in Norwich was restricted to traffic as long ago as 1967, and was the first pedestrianisation in the UK (there is an article with great photos here). Today Norwich is one of the most vibrant city centres in the UK bucking the trend of decline elsewhere.
There is of course more to Norwich’s success that simply reclaiming its medieval thoroughfares. Norwich has embraced a vibrant street culture encouraging busking and street activity. The city offers a mix of independent boutique stores alongside big retail. The streets contain bars, restaurants and civic ammenites such as a major library, cultural centre and bus station located in the middle of town. Unsurprisingly, Norwich city centre is heaving all weekend, with a diverse crowd of all ages. House of Fraser is not closing in Norwich.
Much of this street life is enabled by traffic calmed routes – its part of the equation of a successful city centre. Active, people centred streets must be free of stressful, dangerous, polluting traffic. At the same time, city centres need to be accessible and herein lies and obvious tension given the poor state of public transport across most UK cities: people generally need to drive in.
Does the survival of town centres matter? Shopping on the high street encourages walking in a society plagued by inactivity. It promotes human contact as loneliness rises, especially among vulnerable groups. Town centres usually offer the greatest connection with heritage and culture within an urban area. As town centres become less attractive businesses struggle and locales enter a death spiral. The loss will be to communities and ultimately poor health.
Its obvious that online shopping is massively eroding high street turnovers and there is a separate conversation around tax avoidance of some online retailers unfairly distorting the market at the expense of high street stores. Scott Galloway, author of “The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google points out that Amazon and co have access to a bottomless pit of cheap capital which is another hugely distorting impact. Add to this the stagnation of real incomes for a large chunk of society over the past is reducing discretionary spending across the board and you see why town centres are struggling. Arguably too there is a societal movement away from spending on possessions towards enjoying experiences, which underlines the need to diversify city centres.
It is indicative of a outmoded mindset that on the day House of Fraser listed the closure of its flagship store that Westminster council has announced it is blocking the Oxford street pedestrianization. There may be some specific issues in this case around bus rerouting but overall it looks like a short sighted decision out of step with the times. Pedestrianisation would support healthier living, reduce pollution and provide opportunities to diversify the street. The current levels of pollution are illegal and pose a huge health risk to shoppers and workers alike. Oxford Street is also an accident hotspot. We will wait to see what Westminster’s proposals are but it looks like a poor outcome especially dangerously polluted, dangerous, embarrassment to modern London.
Cities around Europe are reducing traffic in cities. Barcelona is pedestrianising parts of the Eixample grid (Superblocks), Paris is building a promenade along the banks of the Seine and folks are now playing chess on the Times Square. The London Mayors Transport Strategy – devotes many of its pages to Living Streets, a blueprint for streets to contribute to healthy living. Westminster is an outlier.
Nurturing our town centres into healthy, living, diverse spaces will ensure their survival against the tide of change in retail habits. Its vital that we press on with sensible changes to the allocation of road space in cities.