High street shopping: a globalised landscape

Riding the bus through central London recently it struck me how repetitive many of the commercial streets are. A product of globalisation, much of the shops you see are identical to those you saw two streets over; big stores and big brands. But what about the small shops and local businesses that once lined these streets? Has the (relatively) recent emergence of malls had an impact on the culture of traditional high street shopping in London?

High street shopping, London – image: http://www.standard.co.uk

Malls grew out of shopping arcades and by the 1960s the first 100+ store ‘mega malls’ were beginning to open in places like North America. Today malls are even bigger, with the West Edmonton mall in Canada housing some 800+ stores, and even bigger malls planned for Dubai and parts of SE Asia. But why the mall? They offer convenience and a ‘one-stop-shop’ atmosphere. They have a variety of different stores and items all in one place, often with much better mobility and parking facilities than high streets can provide. They often include entertainment elements such as cinemas, bowling alleys, and prize giveaways, and the food courts also provide a place to fuel up. In suburbia they can be a kind of town-centre for places without a town-centre. Perhaps we like to escape to the comfort of a climate-less, place-less space that we know will be almost identical wherever we are?

In London two large scale malls have opened in the late 2000s under the Westfield brand; one in White City, and one in Stratford East. In London terms these areas are practically binary opposites. One is west; one is east. One is rich; one is (historically) poorer. One has a more international population, and one contains more Londoners. And yet, when you step inside the Westfield mall you would almost be unable to tell which one you were in, and perhaps even unable to recognise yourself as being in London. The same aesthetic meets your eye, the same sounds and smells meet your ears and nose, and the same shops and products are on offer. And that is their appeal. They are identifiably and comfortably essentially the same.

I think this influence in shopping culture is partly to blame for the change in London high streets. This idea of the convenience of the ‘same’ being accessible on every street has allowed the big stores and big brands to dominate.  But I see a fight-back coming. I think this globalised mall-type shopping is bland and artificial. I think people like the diversity of shops, they like supporting small business, and perhaps even prefer wandering around the long high streets to the ‘convenience’ of the shopping centre (which can also involve lots of walking anyway!). High streets are more intimate, more local, and more ‘authentic’, and particularly fitting for a city as diverse as London.  The recent closing down of HMV stores in England is a sign of things changing.  Perhaps a move away from globalised shopping is coming, and a more localised landscape is set to return. Perhaps in the modern city a hybrid of the two is the kind of shopping environment we can expect; something ‘glocalised,’ if you will. I hope London’s high streets don’t lose their soul, and I think this is definitely a trend worth watching.

This post originally appeared on urban culture and trends blog Trending City.

Mapping Local Food Growing in London

More and more people in cities are seeking ways to acquire good quality, sustainably sourced food without breaking the bank.  In recent years a popular alternative in London to relying on supermarket food has been urban agriculture, or ‘food gardening’. A few years ago Mikey Tomkins, researcher on food growing, was inspired by the local food growing that was already happening in his local borough, as well as the potential space he saw for even more food growth, to produce the ‘Edible Map’ of Hackney. The map highlights everything from urban space for short and long session veg and fruit trees to compost and worm farms. Mushrooms are even grown in garages and bees kept for honey on rooftops.

The Edible Map isn’t just a list of place markers, it tells stories of the local community, it allows residents to assess their own local food growth, and it encourages others to join in. One of the most encouraging things about this initiative is that the maps are infinitely changing and growing, and the potential for transfer to other areas is great. And in fact it’s already spreading. Mikey ran tours through Hackney with his Edible Map, educating people of the importance and potential for local food growth. Today Edible Maps are also available for Surrey Street in Croyden, and Elephant & Castle in south London. The Royal Geographical Society in London has also collaborated with Tomkins to add a walk through Hackney using the Edible Map to their Discovering Britain walks series, available to anyone for free via their website. The maps are interactive, fun, and informative, and a positive step for food sustainability, quality and affordability in our cities.

The interactive Edible Map is here.

The Royal Geographical Society walk is here.

This post originally appeared on urban culture and trends blog Trending City.

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The green amongst the urban

New York’s Central Park – aerial view (image: thisisthestoryof.wordpress.com)

Green spaces in urban environments are well known to offer a wide range of benefits for people and the environment.  They offer an escape for city inhabitants away from their often tiring normal routines. One of the things I find most pleasing about living in London is the abundance of parks and reserves, making green space and a little bit of nature easily accessible from almost anywhere within the city’s vast limits.  In fact, in most cities I’ve lived or visited I’ve come to appreciate time spent in green space.  An immediate benefit of green space apparent to me is space for recreation and leisure.  Whether it be kayaking down London’s Regent’s Canal, a football game with mates after school at the local common, or a formal exercise session in the city centre for fitness enthusiasts; green spaces make the perfect venues.  Green spaces also provide a place for relaxation and peacefulness, often comprising of tranquil ponds or lakes and beautiful gardens to explore. They contribute positively to the environment in areas such as climate change and biodiversity, and offer a place for wildlife to live and flora to grow, often including native or rare species.  The flying foxes hanging from the tree tops in the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney and the grazing Deer in Richmond Park in London are particular favourite examples of mine.  Personally, I have also found joy in the cultural and historical significance of particular green spaces, such as the haunting sculptures of artist Gustav Vigeland in Oslo, or the rich heritage of Greenwich Park in London.

Regent’s Canal, London.                                              Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney.
Vigelandsparken Sculpture Park, Oslo.                                  Greenwich Park, London.

I have a theory that my well-being is greatly improved by interactions with green space and the natural environment, and it turns out I’m not the only one with this view.  You don’t have to research very deeply to find a number of academic articles investigating and supporting this notion.  Nina Morris (2003) reports that urban green spaces are now widely recognised as major contributors both to the quality of the environment, and to human health and well-being in inner city and suburban areas.  A study in the Netherlands investigated whether the presence of green space can provide a buffer against negative health impacts of stressful life events, determining that health complaints were significantly moderated by the amount of green space in a three kilometre radius (Berg et. al., 2010).  Similarly, statistical analysis by Mass et. al., (2006) of people registered with 104 Dutch general practices revealed that the percentage of green space inside a one kilometre and a three kilometre radius had a significant positive association with perceived general health.  Mitchell and Popham (2008) explored the effects of exposure to natural environments on heath inequality, noting that populations exposed to the greenest environments also have the lowest levels of health inequality related to income deprivation.  Mitchell and Popham (2006) also reported that while in general a higher proportion of green space in an area is associated with better health, the association is dependent on the degree of urbanity and level of income deprivation in an area.  Results of a 2009 study (Lafortezza et. al.) indicate that longer and frequent visits to green spaces generate significant improvements of perceived well-being.  The study focused on physical and psychological benefits associated with the use of green spaces on people in the UK and Italy when heat stress episodes are more likely to occur.  And finally, Fuller and Gaston (2009) following their study of green space coverage in European cities, reported broadly that benefits of urban green spaces range from physical and psychological health to social cohesion, ecosystem service provision and biodiversity conservation.  I imagine with further research there would appear countless more examples supporting the idea of urban green space being associated with improved well-being.  But for the moment it is clear enough that the benefits are well documented.

Pondering my love of green spaces, I cannot help but ponder also the future of these areas.  With increasing populations and more people living in cities in the world than ever before, and increased demand for residential, commercial, and industrial space, will the amount of green space in our cities be compromised?  Will their size, abundance, or diversity be reduced?  Will we have to travel increasingly farther to get our nature fix?  Will green spaces become restricted or will their maintenance become an issue?  There are already many parks and reserves in London that charge an entry or usage fee.  Will the effects of climate change have an impact?  These thoughts do scare me a little, as I believe we should cherish and preserve our green spaces.  They are an integral part of our cities and their benefits to society and the environment are plenty.  So, go on, go enjoy some green space today.

Richmond Park, London.
Photos by Billy Haworth

Leake Street graffiti tunnel: Accepted and ‘cool’.

Hidden below the chaos of London’s busy Waterloo Station lies a very different place where the interactions of the people in this bustling city are evident in a very different way. The Tunnel is an authorised graffiti area where writers can practice their craft without the fear of the societal consequences associated with writing in the majority of other places in the city. Works include anything from tags to more artistic forms of street art such as pieces or throw ups. I’ve even seen recently more elaborate forms of visual art and sculpture. Subject matters might be anything from identity or political messages to professions of love or contemporary culture. There is an image below of a great piece paying tribute to the late cultural icon, Amy Winehouse.

The thing that strikes me about this place is how ‘cool’ it appears. Speaking generally from the view of a society, why is graffiti and street art considered ‘cool’ when it’s all together in one legal place, but not when it appears in its more organic and perhaps true form on our city’s streets and walls? (Though, I know there are many people who would still consider this cool, and some even cooler simply for its illegal nature). Is it a bit ‘not in my backyard’, whereby people don’t care what is going on as long as it isn’t in their own space or interest? The ‘broken windows’ concept proposed by Wilson & Kelling in 1982 is also worth mentioning here. The concept states that a broken window left unrepaired gives a sense to the community that nobody cares, leading to more broken windows. Similarly, leaving graffiti unchecked can lead to an increase in graffiti in the area, thus adding to a feeling of disorder and disrepair. Perhaps with graffiti contained in one place that is not somebody’s personal space these fears are reduced. I admit, even I probably wouldn’t appreciate someone defacing my home.

But I still think there is a place for graffiti in our cities, and the simple existence of a space like The Tunnel shows that some people at least acknowledge that. For me that is probably what I find ‘coolest’ about this place. This is especially cool when compared to other places that do not have such spaces, such as the City of Sydney LGA for example, which currently has no legal space for graffiti writing, and is so heavy-handed in its removal of graffiti that graffiti was defined on their website (2004) as “any inscription, word, figure or word design that is marked, etched, scratched, drawn, sprayed, painted, pasted, applied or otherwise affixed to or on any surface of any assets and includes any remnants of same such as adhesives, glues, tape, shadows or colour variations remaining after removal.”

Everyone has differing views on graffiti and street art, and often in the end that doesn’t really matter anyway. Policy makers and people with authority still make the decisions for its management, and graffiti will continue to occur anyway, whether authorised or not. In my opinion, though, I think this place is rad. I love the art, I love the juxtaposition of paint and colour with the otherwise empty, utility feel of the unused tunnel. I love the interactions you witness between people; I love watching artists paint. I love the vibe, and I love the exposure. It’s definitely one of my favourite places in London.

Photos by Billy Haworth