Tuesday 22 February 2011

Olympic heights

I cycle through Stratford regularly. I sometimes shop in Stratford. I rarely look around at the developments. When I am cycling through Stratford I am normally more interested in the multi-lane free-for-all that I am forced to share with cars and lorries than taking in the view.

But the other day, I had a chance to look around. The scale of change is impressive, in terms of it being vast and big and completely changing the face of the area.

The large structures amid the forest of cranes in the picture above is the Olympic village. The shot is taken from Leyton Road and the building in front is the pub, Wheelers.  The contrast between the old pub and the vast new buildings just behind it (the picture doesn't do justice to the scale) is amazing. Especially when one turned around to see the existing housing estate on the other side of the road.

Wheelers is advertising Karaoke on Saturday nights. I like to think that, come 2012, it will be full of Olympic athletes winding down and having a bit of a sing-song.

Around the corner, Westfield seems to have emerged from the wasteland very quickly indeed, looking like some huge UFO whose owner has watched "Pimp My Ride" once too often.

Clearly Stratford and the surrounding areas will never be the same again. The sheer impact of the games on life in my neck of the woods really sank home whilst I mooched around behind the high fencing - taking photos whilst being watched by security. I like Stratford mall. It has a selection of chain shops with an area for small independent retail spaces and even some market stalls in the middle of it. I doubt Westfield will have stalls in the concourse selling pallets of fruit and veg propped up on cardboard boxes and trestle tables.

Don't get me wrong, I don't think this development is a bad idea, or have some nostalgic whimsy about pound shops and veg by the bowl. I am sure Westfield, and the other developments will bring jobs, shopping and evening activities that were out of reach several years ago.

But I do wonder what will happen to the surrounding areas. I hope it will boost them, not kill them. The number of small shops around the area - Leyton, Walthamstow, and Stratford itself - is amazing, supported by a local community which tends to shop locally, at least for some items. .

I hope councils don't think that the way to counter any negative effects of the huge new developments on our doorstep is to try to emulate a smaller, cheaper, crappier version in the hope some people may be deflected from their path to high price items in Westfield. It won't happen. Walthamstow centre is, yet again, under "consultation" about its future. For those uninitiated to the tribulations of the town centre regeneration programmes, I won't bore you with the details here. Needless to say that there has been significant amounts of money spent on consultations, partnerships with development companies, and so far nothing has come to fruition. St Modwen were feted as the "regeneration specialist" but parted company with the council after issues relating to the schemes viability  (I assume this is code for the "recession hit") and we have now moved on to another partnership. The point is that there are many things that can regenerate Walthamstow (not least getting the high street cinema back to use as a cinema), and many other things that will simply turn it into a dreary also-ran.

Which brings me back to cycling (sort of).

When councils panic about retail in an area, one of the first things that seems to be done is to increase the availability of parking. Which is an odd response when one thinks about it. I doubt there has ever been a conversation which goes like this

"Darling let's go to Oxford Street and hit the sales"
"Would love to, but there isn't any easy, free parking. How about we go to Wood Street instead? I understand that we can now park right outside the shops in free pavement parking bays"
"What a super idea - let's go there instead"

A facetious point, I know, but it surely has some merit. People aren't attracted to shopping areas because they can park, they are attracted to the shopping areas because of the shops. All that parking outside local shops does is allow a sub-section of the local population, who may have shopped there anyway, to drive instead. To attract people to a retail area, that area has to be attractive to them. And long lines of parked cars with narrow pavements isn't attractive.

It is the same with congestion and roads. Re-engineering a road to allow more traffic through a local shopping area normally just allows drivers to be less inconvenienced as they travel to the out-of-town shopping complex. It doesn't help the area - in fact fast moving traffic is completely detrimental to attracting shoppers - if it was the other way around, surely the North Circular would be packed with chic little fashion shops and coffee houses instead of derelict buildings?

Surely the way to make local shopping attractive is to play to the strengths of local shopping. Make it pleasant, different to the normal mall, humanise the area and allow it a chance to become a meeting place and to cater for the local requirements.

Cycling, walking and public transport play an incredibly important part in this. Yet are normally utterly overlooked in schemes that end up with a canyon of parked cars either side an inaccessible road of fast moving vehicles.

Let's hope our local councils get this right. Because many have got it horribly wrong in the past and local communities have been blighted as a result.


  1. You got that wrong, people do go to places where parking is easier. Of course there has to be decent shops but parking easily and for free will win out most times against inconvenient parking. Remove parking and watch the retailers start to complain :-)

  2. Selfish people with their own agenda will continue to drive to shopping malls rather than chance a parking spot in their neighbourhood !

  3. Anonymous,

    My point is that, to compete against better shopping areas, adding extra car parking isn't going to be the answer. And retailers will argue that it is the answer because the alternative - that their shops are the problem - is somewhat unpalatable to them.

    Local shopping areas such as wood street need to be made pleasant places to spend time first and foremost. They won't compete with any dedicated shopping centre in terms parking in any case - it needs something else.

    When a significant proportion of the local catchment area can't drive to shops (car ownership is 60% or less in many wards) it seems an odd decision to prioritise car parking as the method to get the local catchment area to use local shops more.