Autism-friendly cities: making a world of difference

At this time of year, high streets and shops across the country are bustling, decked out with lights and colourful decorations, and of course, the familiar Christmas tunes.

For many, this is part and parcel of the exciting run up to Christmas.  However, for autistic people, the added crowds, lights and noise can turn an already challenging experience into a sensory nightmare.

Indeed, although more than 1 in 100 people in the UK are on the autism spectrum, many still struggle to access local shops and services.  Places that many neurotypical people may take for granted – shops, theatres, cinemas, cafes and restaurants, hairdressers, libraries and museums, public toilets, and public transport – can be particularly challenging environments for autistic people.

Unpredictable and unfamiliar noises, lights, smells, crowds, queues, and other events can be overwhelming, and may cause sensory distress – ultimately leading to a meltdown.  Meltdowns may present as crying, screaming, kicking, biting or lashing out.  A lack of understanding and awareness of autism among the public – including unfriendly looks, judgements and comments – can further enhance the distress experienced.

In 2015, a YouGov poll found that 99.5% of people in the UK had heard of autism. However, there remains a lack of public understanding about how it may present, and the associated challenges autistic people face.  This is perhaps best illustrated by the recent case of a young woman with Asperger’s being forcibly removed from a cinema for ‘laughing too loudly’.  Unfortunately, this experience is not unique.  Research has found that as many as 28% of people have been asked to leave a public space because of behaviour associated with autism.

Indeed, many autistic people and their families have changed their own behaviour to reduce the chance of experiencing intolerance from the public.

It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that social isolation is a common issue – 79% of autistic people and 70% of parents feel socially isolated.  Almost half (44%) sometimes don’t go out because they’re worried about how people will react.

Increasing public understanding

The recent Too Much Information (TMI) campaign, delivered by the National Autistic Society (NAS), aims to increase public understanding of the five core features of autism.

Those five core features are:

  • anxiety in social situations
  • anxiety with unexpected changes
  • sensory overload
  • meltdowns
  • processing time

Creating an autism friendly city

One response has been the drive towards the creation of ‘autism-friendly’ cities.

According to Autism Together and Autism Adventures, an autism-friendly city is one in which autistic people can ‘use public transport, shop for food and clothes, take part in sports and leisure activities, visit cultural and tourist institutions and eat in restaurants.’

The NAS have established an ‘Autism Friendly Award’, which aims to help businesses make the small changes that make the most difference to autistic people.  Their Autism Friendly Awards toolkit sets out a helpful five-point checklist:

  • customer information: providing appropriate information to help support autistic people and their families’ visitor or customer experience
  • staff understanding of autism: developing staff understanding
  • physical environment: making appropriate and reasonable adjustments within the limits of the physical environment
  • customer experience: a willingness to be flexible and providing a clear way for autistic people and their families to provide feedback
  • promoting understanding: committing to helping increase wider public understanding of autism

Examples of good practice

In Glasgow, the council have been working to make the city centre autism-friendly.  The plans have focused initially upon shopping centres, transport hubs, museums, cinemas and key operational staff across the city centre.

The Glasgow Film Theatre (GFT), Scotland’s oldest independent cinema, recently became the first cinema in the UK to achieve an Autism Friendly Award for their work with children and adults.  This includes monthly screenings for autistic adults and children, with the volume slightly lowered, stair lights remaining switched on, house lights dimmed and a chill out zone provided. Trained ‘autism facilitators’ also answer questions at the end of each film.

Other organisations have followed the GFT’s lead. Glasgow Science Centre, for example, has recently introduced autism friendly hours.

In the North East, Aberdeen has also announced its intention to work towards autism-friendly status.

As well as raising awareness and making key shopping locations more accessible for autistic people, Aberdeen also plans to introduce autism-friendly libraries, including pop up sensory sessions designed for autistic children.

Research has shown as many as 40% of people with autism never visit a library – however, 90% have said they would be more likely to visit their local library if some changes were made.

Such adjustments include staff training, increased tolerance of noise and understanding from the public.  Dimensions have released free online training and top tips for libraries looking to become autism-friendly. It notes that while many people with autism need a quiet environment, they may make noise themselves – for example, by talking to themselves or others, becoming excitable or moving around. They highlight the importance of making clear to the public that the library is autism-friendly, which includes a tolerance of certain levels of noise.

Other cities that have been working towards autism-friendly status include: Bristol –  whose airport has won an Autism Friendly Award; Liverpool – where autism champions are being supported to recognise and respond to autism; and Newcastle in Northern Ireland – which has been named as Northern Ireland’s first autism-friendly town. It is anticipated that being autism-friendly will help boost the local economy and tourism.

Other ways to make cities autism-friendly

As well as organisations themselves making adjustments and promoting autism understanding among staff and customers, there are a few other ways in which cities can be made more autism-friendly.

Making public transport more accessible is a key challenge.  More than half of autistic people avoid public transport due to fears of disruption.  There are many things that can be done to help make public transport less distressing for autistic people.

From an architecture and design perspective, there are also many other things that can help to make urban buildings and spaces more accessible, in regard to ventilation, acoustics, heating, lighting, layout and outdoor spaces.

From a town planning perspective – there is currently a lack of research and guidance on the design of places for autistic people per se, however, there may be some transferability of lessons from work on the creation of dementia-friendly and child-friendly spaces.

For example, the provision of clear signage and removal of street clutter may be beneficial for autistic people.  Edinburgh City Council has recently banned on-street advertising structures in order to make streets more accessible for people with disabilities.

There have also been concerns raised that shared spaces – including the removal of road signs, traffic crossings and delineation between roads/walkways – may negatively impact upon autistic people, who may struggle with the uncertainty such schemes deliberately create.  This is an area where more research and guidance is needed.

The way forward

Creating a city that is autism-friendly requires a multi-faceted approach that includes both raising public awareness and understanding, and creating towns and places that allow for the specific challenges that are faced by autistic people and their families.

Many steps that can be taken are low cost and easy to implement – and support is available from a range of national and local autism organisations, such as the NAS.

Even just reacting with kindness and compassion when witnessing a possible autistic meltdown – perhaps offering some solution such as a quiet space – is significant.  The sum of these small changes can make a world of difference to autistic people and their families.

I wouldn’t change my son for the world but I will change the world for my son.” Julie Simpson, Founder of Autism Adventures


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Science in the city: applying neuroscience to urban design

Cities have long been considered primarily in terms of their buildings and infrastructure.  However, in recent years, a more ‘human-centric’ view has been adopted – focusing on the people who inhabit the city, and how they perceive and respond to the city that surrounds them.

Research from a variety of disciplines agree that buildings and cities have a significant impact upon the people – from their physical and mental health, cognitive development, and wellbeing to their levels of productivity.

Neuroscience offers a new way to further explore this impact – and by doing so, help urban design professionals to create places that promote human health and wellbeing, whilst mitigating the negative impacts of the city environment as far as possible.

 

What is neuroscience?

But what exactly is neuroscience?  And how does it relate to urban design?

A recent report by FutureCatapult looks at how neuroscience can be used to improve the design of urban places, and thus increase human wellbeing and productivity.

It defines neuroscience as “a multidisciplinary branch of biology and is the scientific study of the brain and nervous system, including its interaction with the other parts of the body”.

There are various ‘scales’ or ‘levels’ of neuroscience – from cognitive psychology, right down to the study of individual cells in the brain.  Each level of neuroscience studies different aspects of how the brain functions, and thus offers different ways to explore and understand how humans perceive, respond to and are affected by their surrounding environments.  It has many applications in real life – and one such application is informing city strategy, design and policy.

 

Applying neuroscience research to urban design

Take mental health, for example.  It is a prime example of an area in which neuroscience can be used by city planners and policymakers to help improve human wellbeing.

As FutureCatapult point out in their report, cities have a greater prevalence of mental health problems than rural areas.

They note that several factors associated with cities have been found to contribute to mental health problems. These include certain toxins (produced by traffic, industrial parks), environmental stressors (noise and light pollution), climate conditions (urban heat islands) and social conditions (isolation).  Neuroscience offers a greater understanding how these factors impact on human health and wellbeing, thus creating an evidence base for the design of healthy places.

There are many other ways in which neuroscience research can inform city design.  For example, it has been found that:

  • poor air quality has serious detrimental effects on the natural developments of children’s brains
  • social isolation can accelerate cognitive decline in older people
  • an increase in noise decreases worker productivity
  • light influences brain function during specific cognitive tasks, especially those requiring sustained attention

Such findings can help inform the decisions made by city planners and policymakers, and help create cities that maximise human health, wellbeing and productivity.

Research into the brain’s ‘wayfinding’ processes – that is, how the brain processes visual information and makes sense of unfamiliar environments – is also of interest.  For example, how do people choose which paths to follow?  Are they influenced by street size, shape, colours, noise, or the number of cars? Such information could be used to inform the design of streets and places that are easier to navigate. This is of growing importance given the drive towards the design of inclusive and dementia-friendly places.

Relatedly, neuroscience offers a way to gain a deeper understanding of how non-neurotypical brains process and respond to different environments – for example, people with dementia or autism.  Understanding these different perspectives and responses is key to the creation of spaces that are truly inclusive.

 

Neuroscience in action

But how exactly does one go about examining how brain cells respond to an urban environment?

There are a variety of neuroscience tools that may be used to gather information about human’s experience of the city.

A key tool is mobile electroencephalography (EEG).  Previously, EEG involved equipment that could only be used in a laboratory.  However, technological advances have seen the development of mobile EEG ‘headsets’ that can be worn as research participants navigate different streets and environments of the city.

Mobile EEG enables researchers to measure brain function and activity, as well as the responses of the autonomic nervous system (heart rate, skin conductivity, endocrinological levels).  This can be used to understand how individuals experience urban environments.

For example, mobile EEG has been used to help understand the urban experiences of people with visual impairments.  Other mobile EEG studies have looked at whether using quiet, low traffic streets has a different effect on pedestrians than using streets busy with shops, traffic and other pedestrians.

Eye tracking machines are another tool providing research findings of interest to urban designers.  They study gaze behaviours and cognition, which are in turn related to attention, memory, language, problem solving, and decision making.  Eye tracking can help researchers to understand which features catch and hold attention, visual preferences and experiences. For example, one eye-tracking study found (perhaps unsurprisingly) that humans prefer lush greenery in urban environments.

As these neurological research and related technologies advance, their application will undoubtedly become more sophisticated and widespread.

 

Building upon evidence

The urban population around the world is expanding rapidly and finding solutions to the mental and physical health challenges that cities present is crucial.

By understanding the insights that neuroscience can provide, city planners, policy makers and others involved in urban design can access a growing evidence base upon which to build future cities that are healthy, attractive and inclusive places to live.


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The rise in youth markets – “transforming town and city centres with the creativity of young people”

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Credit: National Market Traders Federation (NMTF)

By Heather Cameron

As we recently reported, despite being around for centuries, and following a decline during the recession, traditional retail markets have experienced something of a revival in recent years, with a new generation of innovative young traders coming to the fore.

Latest figures indicate the sector has a collective turnover of £2.7 billion a year from around 32,000 market traders – a gradual increase of around £200 million year on year since 2013.

The last five years has also witnessed the emergence of youth markets and ‘The Teenage Market’ initiative, which are generating income for young people and teaching them valuable entrepreneurial lessons, as well as transforming town and city centres.

Specialist market boom

But this revival is not wholly in the traditional sense of the market sector. Young people entering the sector tend to trade at festivals, fairs and shows rather than traditional markets, contributing to a specialist market boom.

According to a recent survey of the sector by the National Association of British Market Authorities (NABMA), new trends in the most successful product lines – hot and cold food and drink, baked goods, handmade crafts, fruit and vegetables and mobile phone accessories – have fuelled this growth.

Festivals and shows, which are popular with a younger demographic, are increasing in both size and frequency across the UK. Many of these events also take place out of the traditional season.

Such new trends do not come without their challenges, however, as NABMA’s survey also highlighted. Traders reported escalating pitch fees, poor pitch locations and never-ending paperwork. But despite these drawbacks, traders have reported huge returns at such events, where they can turn over tens of thousands of pounds.

Both NABMA and the National Market Traders Federation (NMTF) agree that the sector needs to embrace these new trends and act to engage this new generation of entrepreneurs.

Youth markets

Indeed, national initiatives in support of youth markets have emerged in recent years to do just that.

This September will see the fifth National Youth Market take place in Manchester, an annual event run by the NMTF in partnership with Manchester Markets. Young people between the age of 16 and 30 from all over the UK trade at this event, showcasing their entrepreneurial talent.

The NMTF also supports traditional market organisers to run specialist markets aimed specifically at young people. Many towns and cities from across the UK have launched their own youth markets, such as those in Manchester and Cambridge, with over 100 such events taking place every year.

Also in its fifth year, is The Teenage Marketa fast-growing national initiative that’s transforming town and city centres with the creativity of young people”. This initiative provides a free platform for young people to trade at specially organised events. In addition to the retail offer, it also provides a platform for young performers to showcase their talents

Created by two teenage brothers from Stockport to support their town’s large population of young people, The Teenage Market initiative has quickly expanded across the country with thousands of young people taking part in events. Following the success of the first event, it was quickly recognised that the initiative could play an important role in the town’s regeneration strategy; a role which was highlighted by Mary Portas in her 2011 review of high streets.

Revitalising town centres

According to Portas, “Markets are a fantastic way to bring a town to life… I believe markets can serve as fundamental traffic drivers back to our high streets.” And one of her recommendations was to build upon current successful initiatives “to help attract young entrepreneurs to markets and really start building the innovative markets of the future.”

Indeed, the positive benefits for the towns and cities running The Teenage Market events include a rise in footfall, an increase in spend in the local area and a rise in the number of visitors to their local market.

Not only this, but the fusion of retail and live performances has succeeded in attracting a new generation of shoppers and visitors to local markets, helping to breathe new life into town and city centres.

Final thoughts

In an era of online shopping and declining high streets, the fact that local markets led by a new generation of traders are flourishing can only be a good thing.

And with an ageing population of traders, it is arguably now more important than ever to encourage young traders in order to secure the future prosperity of the markets industry.


If you enjoyed this blog post, you may also like our previous post on street markets.

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Accelerated development: do Simplified Planning Zones work?

The Hillington Park SPZ has accelerated a number of developments, including a “motorbike village”.

by Donna Gardiner

A simplified planning zone (SPZ) is a designated area where the need to apply for planning permission for certain types of development is removed so long as the development complies with a range of pre-specified conditions.

Although the SPZ concept has been around since the 1970s, the idea has never really taken off, and there are very few SPZs in the UK.

However, in the last 12 months there have been some signs of renewed interest in the concept.  As part of the current review of the planning system, the Scottish Government has shown considerable enthusiasm for the potential of SPZs to address the housing crisis and support economic development.

In their most recent position statement, they state:

Zoning has potential to unlock significant areas for housing development, including by supporting alternative delivery models such as custom and self-build. This could also support wider objectives including business development and town centre renewal

Indeed, the Scottish Government recently committed £120,000 to help four local authorities develop pilot SPZs for housing development in Aberdeenshire, Argyll & Bute, Dumfries and Galloway, and North Ayrshire.

There are also plans underway for the creation of two new SPZs in Scotland.  In Aberdeenshire, councillors have agreed that planning officers should begin the statutory process for the creation of an SPZ for industrial and commercial activity in the south of Peterhead. The SPZ aims to strengthen the town’s position as a key strategic investment location, and complement work to regenerate the town centre.

At the other end of the country, in the Scottish Borders, a consultation has recently closed on the creation of an SPZ in Tweedbank – the new Central Borders Business Park.  The scheme aims to capitalise on the opportunities brought about by the Borders Railway, and is likely to receive additional funding as part of the recently agreed Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region Deal.

While there is enthusiasm for the Tweedbank SPZ, East Berwickshire councillor Jim Fullerton notes: “The question of the viability of this project has to be recorded. Enthusiasm is one thing, but evidence of it being viable is the key.”

Viability

So what is the evidence on the viability of SPZ’s?  In theory, SPZs can offer a number of benefits for both the developer and the planning authority, including:

  • removal of the ‘planning hurdle’ and associated fees
  • faster decision making and accelerated development
  • greater certainty for developers and stakeholders
  • simplified planning control
  • reduces the need for repetitive planning applications
  • saves time and costs both for organisations and the local planning authority
  • offers more flexibility than a masterplan
  • attracts investment
  • can help to promote the reuse of existing space

However, while there are equivalent mechanisms in other countries, there are currently only two other operational SPZs in Scotland – Hillington Industrial Estate and Renfrew High Street.  They are widely considered a success, with Scottish Planner concluding that:

Both projects are a good example of how planning professionals, working with commercial stakeholders, can cooperate successfully in finding new ways to encourage sustainable economic growth.

Case study: Glasgow City Council and Hillington

In 2014, the first SPZ in Scotland in 20 years – the Hillington Park SPZ – was established by a partnership between Glasgow City Council and Renfrewshire Council.

The award-winning SPZ allows the landowner to increase space at the site by around 85,000 square metres, as long as proposals conform to the conditions set out in the SPZ scheme.

The SPZ is valid for 10 years.  So far, it has triggered around 20,000 square metres of development and attracted around £20 million pounds of investment.  Not only has it helped to promote the reuse of existing space, such as the obsolete Rolls Royce plant, it claims to have given the area a commercial advantage in attracting inward investment.

Jamie Cumming, the director of Hillington Park, said: “Our SPZ status means that new developments like the ‘motorbike village’ with Ducati Glasgow, Triumph Glasgow and West Coast Harley-Davidson as well as Lookers plc’s new Volvo and Jaguar showrooms and our own Evolution Court manufacturing and logistics development can be accelerated with an anticipated build time of just 10 months.”

Case study: Renfrew Town Centre

Building on the success of the SPZ at Hillington, in 2015 Renfrewshire council created the Renfrew Town Centre SPZ Scotland’s first SPZ focusing on town centres.  Renfrew is a “small, but vibrant” town centre. The SPZ aims to support existing businesses, encourage new businesses, and increase the number of people living within the town centre by supporting the re-use of vacant property on upper floors.

The scheme has been hailed as an excellent example of the Town Centre First principle.

According to Scottish Planner: “The scheme has been well received and offers simplicity to businesses who can invest in the town centre knowing that they can change the use of premises and upgrade the shop front without having to apply for planning permission”.

Challenges

However, SPZs are not without their challenges.  These include the initial costs of establishing the SPZ, which can vary significantly depending on the size and complexity of the scheme.  There is also the need to ensure that the SPZ is ‘future-proofed’ – so that it is still relevant throughout the duration of its life (usually 10 years).  It is also important that those establishing an SPZ address the perception held by many that the relaxed planning rules associated with SPZs will result in poor design or compromise environmental impact.

Future directions

In addition to the pilot SPZs, the Scottish Government has commissioned Ryden (in association with Brodies) to undertake research to assess the potential for a more flexible and more widely applicable land use zoning mechanism than SPZs provide at present.  The research will inform the Government’s final proposals.

The research team at Idox will be following the revival of SPZs in Scotland with interest.

Supporting markets to survive and thrive

For around a thousand years, the London Borough Market has existed in one form or another.  It has survived fire, flood, plague and war – and on the 3rd of June this year, a terrorist attack.  The market has since reopened, with traders determined to continue their work and serve the local community.

Although many markets are a historic part of their host towns and cities, they are far from being relics.  Indeed, in recent years markets have experienced something of a revival.  In London alone, since 2010, the number of street markets has grown from 162 to over 250.

There are clear reasons for this – markets offer consumers and traders a number of benefits, and they make significant contributions to the economic, social and political health of towns and cities.

Economic impact of markets

Indeed, in 2015, the Institute of Place Management (IPM) conducted a comprehensive review of the impact of markets and found that markets not only have a significant turnover, they also impact indirectly on the wider economy – meaning that the £3.5 billion turnover directly attributable to retail markets is actually worth around £10.5 billion to the UK economy.

The Portas review in 2011 hailed markets as a potential saviour of the high street.  Indeed, the IPM review supports this, reporting that markets can help to increase town centre footfall by up to 25%.  This has significant economic potential.  In London, market visitors spend around £752 million per annum in nearby shop-based retailers.

Markets were also found to:

  • act as a significant employer, both nationally and at the local level
  • support intergenerational economic mobility (through family-owned businesses)
  • support the development of entrepreneurial skills in young people through ‘youth markets’
  • act as business incubators and support business formation due to their low barriers to entry, for example, enabling migrants to set up their own businesses
  • enable small businesses to reach larger businesses whom they can supply, and support other local businesses, such as farmers.
  • encourage high street diversity and create a distinct ‘identity’ for high streets
  • promote high street resilience, as they are flexible and able to respond quickly to changing demands.
  • help to utilise vacant and underused spaces within high streets
  • attract tourists, who are drawn to them because they are “unique, quirky, unusual”

Wider benefits

Markets also have a number of social purposes.  They are important places of social interaction, which facilitate community cohesion and social inclusion.  Markets can also help to improve public health and quality of life through the provision of fresh, quality produce at lower price points, which may be particularly beneficial for low-income families.

From an environmental perspective, there are also a number of benefits arising from the sale and purchase of locally produced products, including reducing pollution associated with high ‘food miles’ and reducing the need for consumers to travel to out-of-town sites, such as large retail parks, in order to make their purchases.

Challenges

Although there is overwhelming evidence that almost every street, food and farmer’s market is an invaluable asset to its local community, markets still face a number of very real threats.  These include:

  • the rise of out-of-town shopping centres, the dominance of big supermarkets, and the popularity of online shopping
  • planning and regulatory regimes that do not allow for, or restrict, the expansion or establishment of markets
  • a lack of support for markets or poor management by local authorities
  • high land values making it difficult for markets to be established

As many markets are a lifeline for areas experiencing deprivation, it is important that they receive the support that they require to survive and flourish.

Promoting and supporting markets

So, what can be done to support markets?  Earlier this year, the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, announced plans to establish the London Markets Board – a team of experts tasked with delivering a London markets strategy, and work to preserve and promote London’s increasing number of markets.

On a wider scale, NABMA (National Association of British Market Authorities) and the National Market Traders Federation recently published a ‘five-year manifesto’, which made a number of recommendations for ways to support markets.

A key recommendation is that local authorities work to raise the profile of markets.  There are many market-focused national initiatives such as Love Your Local Market, the National Youth Market, and the Great British Market Awards, which local authorities can become involved in.

The Love Your Local Market campaign, for example, is an annual event, established in 2012, which brings together markets across the UK.  It aims to build affection and support for markets in local communities, and offers free or subsidised pitches to start-ups to test trading conditions.  In 2013, it increased footfall in participating town centres by 10%.

Other recommendations to support markets include:

  • greater recognition of the role of markets in local economies, jobs and growth, as well as in civic local society
  • ensuring that retail markets have a voice in policy making that affects them, including planning and town centre management
  • further lifting the current burden of business rates for SMEs
  • supporting greater awareness of the sector’s employment opportunities including apprenticeships, platforms for self-employment and training hubs
  • developing and supporting sector-led initiatives that aim to support entrepreneurship and increase the amount of businesses on markets, and support them digitally
  • encouraging schools and further education establishments to work with market operators to enable people entering the labour market to embrace markets as a possible career

There are some promising signs.  Around £90 million has been invested into improving markets since 2014, and an increasing number of local authorities are making them central to town centre plans and regeneration activity.

By promoting and supporting markets in this way, the economic, social and environmental benefits can be maximised. As the 2015 review of markets underlines: “markets are an important asset to a location, and their future cannot be left to chance.”

Managing growth in historic towns

canterbury cathedral

By Heather Cameron

Predominantly set within environmentally attractive surroundings, historic towns and cities have a strong sense of place, offer a good quality of life, are often prosperous and represent models of sustainable development.

Research shows that businesses based in older places are more productive than the average for all commercial businesses across the whole economy. Retail and leisure businesses often seek to cluster in historic areas of towns and cities, and historic buildings are particularly attractive to new business start-ups, especially in the creative and cultural sector. Well-maintained historic places also enhance cultural life and community resilience.

As a result, historic towns are much sought after places to live and work, which has contributed to unprecedented growth.

Growth pressures

While growth is seen as a good thing for the future of town centres, managing it effectively in these areas of historic importance is not without its challenges. Older townscapes and buildings are a valuable and irreplaceable community asset that need to be protected.

Growth in historic towns creates pressure for new housing and development, and the infrastructure that is needed alongside it. It can also lead to increased congestion and depletion of suburban quality through redevelopment and loss of garden space. The traditional infrastructure in these towns may not be able cope with the increased capacity resulting in demand for suitable adaptation.

Managing these growth pressures is a particular challenge for historic towns as they need to try and meet local development need while both conserving the identity and sense of place of the existing town and nurturing the creation of sustainable new communities within them.

The Historic Towns Forum has highlighted that “there are challenges of infrastructure, partnership working, working with major national developers, the tension between modernity and pastiche and how to learn from the past and the present when building at this scale.”

In addition, the main political priority across all areas is economic wellbeing, taking precedence over any heritage considerations. A report from Green Balance in 2014 found that this principle concern was interpreted differently from place to place, with some local councillors viewing heritage as beneficial to a town’s economic and social wellbeing, while others viewed it is a burden and drag on investment.

As the heritage of places can be a particular pull for tourism, not preserving them could lead to a loss in economic wellbeing. The importance of achieving the right balance between sustainable development and heritage conservation is a theme that has been consistently highlighted in the research.

Smarter growth

So how do such places manage growth while also safeguarding both the character of the towns themselves and the settings around them?

According to the Historic Towns Forum, key issues in effectively addressing growth pressures in historic towns include:

  • planning and process;
  • partnerships;
  • finance and economics;
  • climate change;
  • community benefits and community engagement;
  • design; and
  • learning from the past and present.

It has been argued that a strategic approach to growth needs to be taken, such as the approach taken in Cambridge, where the Cambridgeshire Quality Charter for Growth is being used to help steer the creation of high quality sustainable communities.

Partnerships involving a range of local stakeholders, encompassing a shared vision and cooperation are also important for effective growth. Where strategic resources are lacking, which is often the case in smaller towns, community engagement can be of particular importance, as shown in Cirencester.

Key principles of good design have been highlighted to include:

  • learning from the past, including study of appropriate models;
  • localising by understanding local conditions; and
  • transforming action by applying appropriate, robust advances.

The overarching message seems to be that ‘smarter growth’ is required.

Good practice

There are examples of good practice where historic towns are managing growth in a way that protects their heritage. Cambridge, as mentioned previously, is one example. Sutton is another, where the challenges of growth are being addressed through the use of a Heritage Action Zone. The aim here is to balance growth with the management of heritage assets, providing lessons for elsewhere.

It is also important to look further afield. The historic town of Amersfoort in the Netherlands has been presented as a good model for managing housing growth to achieve attractive new settlements and create balanced communities. It has been suggested that this smarter approach is something that historic towns in the UK can learn from.

Another good example is Freiburg in Germany. Although different in terms of development to Britain, some of the issues applicable to British towns and cities have been addressed – including how to attract families to live at higher densities close enough to city centres to avoid car dependency.

As Historic England states:

“Learning is central to sustaining the historic environment. It raises people’s awareness and understanding of their heritage, including the varied ways in which its values are perceived by different generations and communities. It encourages informed and active participation in caring for the historic environment.”


If you enjoyed this blog post, why not read are previous posts on the civic use of heritage assets and the value of preserving our built heritage.

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Parking charges and the death of the high street

By Heather Cameron

“High streets are not just about shops; we have to consider what local people want” (Mary Portas)

Councils called for a scrap in parking charges recently following reports of booming trade in Cardigan, Mid-Wales, after pay-and-display machines were broken by vandals. Shopkeepers reported huge increases in turnover, with some up as much as 50%.

Three years on from her independent review of high streets, Mary Portas has said that the main source of dissatisfaction with our high streets is – you’ve guessed it – parking charges. Portas highlights research by Deloitte that shows 34% of us are unhappy with the cost of parking to access high streets otherwise regarded as convenient. The research suggested that consumers want to see more of:

  • Free parking (60%)
  • Choice of stores (59%)
  • Independent stores (57%)
  • Specialists e.g butchers (50%)
  • Parking spaces (48%)

Portas also notes that the more progressive local authorities are providing free parking at certain times or are freezing parking charges.

This begs the question – should parking charges be removed or changed to aid our declining high streets?

Decline of the high street?

It’s no secret that since the growth in large out-of-town shopping centres, local high street stores have struggled to compete. Business owners in Cardigan suggested that the temporary removal of parking restrictions “levelled the playing field” when it comes to competing with these shopping centres where parking is often free.

Despite efforts to regenerate high streets and make them more appealing to consumers, the latest BDO high street sales tracker  recorded a further month of decline in August, with sales falling by 4.3% compared to the same month last year – the worst performance since November 2008.

Much of this can be attributed to an increase in spending on leisure activities, including holidays abroad. The strong pound hasn’t helped the high streets as consumers are spending more on items abroad while tourists are more reluctant to spend.

As it is often cheaper to shop online and pay for delivery charges than it is to pay for parking for a couple of hours, it is little wonder people are less likely to shop on the high street. The threat of parking tickets is also a deterrent for many.

Earlier this year, high streets minister, Marcus Jones, claimed “unfair parking fines push up the cost of living and undermine high streets”.

So what is being done to address this issue?

New parking initiatives

Many of the Portas pilots trialled parking initiatives to bring more people to the high street. The ‘free after three’ initiative is one that has been introduced in a number of places since and has shown to have made a difference. Visitor numbers increased in Salisbury following a six month experimental period of the initiative. Nearly double the number of cars used the car park per week, making the town noticeably busier.

Just last month, Chippenham launched its own ‘free after three’ pilot initiative on Thursdays to support local businesses. It’s hoped that this will help shops and offices as well as improve the evening economy.

Rotherham Borough Council, for the fifth consecutive financial year in 2014/15, planned for no increases in the cost of parking. Portas suggests that it is no coincidence that 55% of shoppers in the town centre came by car, compared to 29% in 2009.

A way forward

Despite the evidence in support of free parking in town centres, it is also something that could easily be met with opposition. With calls to reduce car use and tackle emissions from vehicles, particularly in larger towns and cities, a balance needs to be struck.

And free parking alone is unlikely to save the high street. As Portas argues, a combination of actions are required. She suggests that while moves have been made in the right direction, more commitment and action is needed from government, specifically on:

  • Access and parking
  • Reforming business rates
  • Landlord registers
  • Long term support for Town Teams and simplification of the process of forming BIDs.

Clearly, parking is an important part of the picture in our smaller towns and cities, particularly in an age where convenience is key. If our high streets are to be viable, it’s something that councils need to think about carefully as part of a strategic approach to local economic development, rather than only as a way to manage traffic and generate revenue for traffic improvements.


 

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© Copyright michael ely and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

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