Shops have an important social role

While I was shopping over Christmas I started to think about the effect the internet is having on local shops and my community. I’ve lived above a shop for many years. Within a couple of years of moving here, the butcher’s, the two florists’, the baker’s, the post office and the vintage motorbike shop closed. Even the mobile fishmonger stopped coming here. These shops were all within a couple of minutes walk of my house.

The Centre for Retail Research predict:

  • The share of online retail sales will rise from 12.7% (2012) to 21.5% by 2018 or the end of the decade.
  • In spite of the Portas Pilots, the High Street will continue to suffer: around 41% of town centres will lose 27,638 stores in the next five years.

It’s sad. I’ve realised that if our local shops close we’ll lose something: a chance to talk to your neighbour, a friend, the shopkeeper – in other words, social capital. Shops create an opportunity to bump into one another. If we lose our local shops we will have to find new ways to socialise.

If the Centre for Retail Research are right, there will be less eyes on the street. When I lived above a plumbing shop, the shopkeepers would know everything that took place on that parade of shops. One day they noticed our neighbour had not been for her regular daily walk to the shops. He knocked on the door, looked through the window and saw her lying on the ground. She’d had a heart attack.

The plumbing shop was also a place where plumbers and shopkeepers came to socialise and have a cup of tea. The local Royal Mail sorting office would leave post to be collected by our postman. It was a community notice board where plumbers could leave their business cards and where tenants like me could advertise a fledgling start-up business. There was always a debate going on and banter, lots of banter.

Since then my landlord sold up because he wanted to retire. He tried to sell the shop as a going concern but no one was interested. He blamed the internet as the main reason for a decline in his trade over the last 10 years.

It’s a sad day for my local community because it’s likely there will never be a small local plumbing shop here again because people are buying more and more online.

Shops are more than just places where you buy something. They are part of our local community.

I’m boycotting Amazon

Just before Christmas I watched a Panorama programme about Amazon. Adam Litler, a BBC undercover reporter, exposed the harsh working conditions in an Amazon warehouse in Swansea.

The warehouse is huge, (it’s the size of 14 football pitches) so it came as no surprise that some days Adam walked 11 miles. There are no windows. Most people are on zero hours contracts and pickers (the people who pick items off the shelves) are given 30 seconds to retrieve each item. Night shifts are 10.5 hours long, not the recommended 8 hours. Then there’s the points system. You get three points periodically. If you’re sick you get a point taken away. If you’re one minute late, half a point is deducted. When you have no more points you’re fired.

The Guardian has also exposed Amazon’s avoidance of corporation tax. This is one of the main ways that Amazon can make a profit.

On UK sales of £4.2bn in 2012, Amazon [it] paid £3.2m in corporation tax. In 2006, it transferred its UK business to Luxembourg and reclassified its UK operation as simply “order fulfilment” business. The Luxembourg office employs 380 people. The UK operation employs 21,000. You do the math. (The Guardian, 2013)

photo (18)I started boycotting Amazon before Christmas. In 2013 I spent £360. Shopping for Christmas presents proved a bit tricky. I found myself going to local shops, buying books on eBay from small bookshops, making a bag for my sister, a scarf for a friend (it’s not finished yet) and even making a Christmas decoration. I’ve been busy.


So my new years message is to boycott Amazon because they treat their staff badly and avoid paying tax.

What makes a good place for a street bench?

Bench in Windsor Place

Photo by Andy via the Worcester Park blog

As part of the Mayor of London’s Outer London Fund there are public realm improvements taking place in Worcester Park, a small town in the London Borough of Sutton. Recently some new benches have been put in but locals are a bit mystified as to the placement of one of them.

This asks the question what makes a good place for a bench and why is it important to have seating?

Jan Gehl points out that only when there are opportunities for sitting do people stay in a place for any duration. If there are few/no places where people can sit, people will simply walk on by. And as a consequence, opportunities for outdoor activites are precluded.

Good seating enables activities such as eating, reading, talking, sleeping, resting and watching.

Factors whch make a good place for a street bench

  • Psychological comfort: very often people like to sit on the edge of a space, not in the middle of it. In restaurants and cafes its quite common to see people sitting with their back or side to a wall especially if there is a window with a nice view.
  • Being around other people: According to Jane Jacobs the most basic human instinct is to be around other people. If people are too far away from a bench people will not sit there. The same is if people are too close that you can’t see their face as they walk past. This is why the bench mentioned in the blog post (Windsor Place) is in the wrong place.
  • Noise: If a place is too noisy to read, talk and rest, people won’t sit there
  • Weather: People need a variety of seating, some that’s in the shade during the summer months, some where you can enjoy the sun and some that is protected from wind and rain.
  • Views: People like to sit in places where there is a good view. For example at the top of a hill such as Hampstead Heath.
  • A place to contemplate, think, read, write: Sometimes people want to sit in a quiet place so they can concentrate, think, work and take time out.
  • Convenience: Seating that’s near a bus stop, library, the shops, near a school are all places where people are likely to sit.

People need to put seating in places that cater for peoples needs. These needs cover a wide variety of different social, economic and environmental factors. Seating should therefore be placed with the context in mind.

How did Groningen achieve such high levels of cycling?

This fascinating film by Clarence Eckerson, Jr. talks about Groningen, a city made up of 190,000 people where 50% of people cycle everyday into the city centre.

I sent a link of Clarence’s video to my local council asking if we could achieve the same things in Sutton and they came back asking “any ideas on how we could bring it about?”

Clarence’s film helpfully goes into some detail about this.

Facts from the film

  • Groningen is an old city with 190,000 habitants.
  • Its a university city where 50% of its population are students
  • The city has been a fortress city for 1000 years constraining development which as a result has made the city compact.
  • In 1972 a left wing local government came to power and focused on transport policy for the city. Their vision is for the city centre to be a living room and a compact city.
  • In 1977 the local governement implement a circulation plan for the city, dividing the city into four quarters, making cars drive around the city centre and park on the periphery.
  • Pedestrians and cyclists can go through the city centre.
  • Large parts of the city centre are pedestrianised
  • Park and ride schemes are set up so people can park outside the city centre

Other facts

  • Groningen municipality research showed in 2008 78% of residents and 90% of employees now live within 3 km of the city centre. Investments include: expanding the network of cycling lanes, improving the pavements, bridges for cyclists, more bike parking facilities – make cycling faster and more convenient in the city.
  • Between 1989 – 2000, €23 million Euros has been invested in cycling in Groningen
  • Groningen was not always like this. In the 1950s and 1960′s vehicular traffic and urban sprawl was growing.

Worcester Park public realm improvements

Today I went to see the public realm improvements in Worcester Park. Although the scheme itself is not yet complete it’s a relief to see that some real problem areas are being addressed.

Some of the big successes include

Pavements on both sides of the road at the entrance to Waitrose

Before there was only one very narrow strip of pavement on one side of the road at the entrance to Waitrose. People walked in the road where cars were driving through and it was unsafe. Now there will be pavement where people want to walk and informal crossing points.


Entrance to Waitrose- before






Entrance to Waitrose – after

Informal crossings throughout the high street

There are now crossings being put in throughout the high street. I noticed that even though they’re not zebra crossings, vehicles stuck in traffic tend to stop outside them which is a sign that people realise that pedestrians will be crossing here. On the downside when traffic is moving very few cars tend to stop.

Informal crossings at the top of Worcester Park high street









More trees and plants

It’s nice to see the new trees and plants going into the high street. Central Road has always benefited from being green and this softens the landscape as well as absorbing Carbon Monoxide in this busy trafficed area. Roots around trees have been covered in what looks like permeable gravel. This makes the area look tidier and cared for. New planting also looks nice but could be high maintenance. It’s still not clear whether the council/volunteers will be able to maintain these planted areas. On the downside the planted areas also act as barriers for people wanting to cross the road informally. While this is not necessarily a good thing it perhaps stops vehicles from mounting the curb.

Planted areas

New trees in Central Road

New bus stop

There’s a new bus stop making the high street more accessible for people with mobility difficulties. The waiting area has been designed so that buses can glide in, making it easier to get as close to the pavement as possible.

New bus stop at the top of Central Road










Informal crossing points in strange places

There is some tactile paving in Stoneplace which is the same type of paving that’s used for the crossings. It’s confusing as to what the intention is for this paving. Is it a crossing or is it designed to slow vehicles down?

If it’s a crossing point, there are clearly a few problems with this as you can see in the photo below:










I’m sure these are not the only changes that have taken place so if you see anymore please feel free to add them to the comments below.