People Wear Cars: Inequities in Space
In recent years, persistently high vacancy rates in shop premises within the UK’s high streets have been regarded as symptomatic of a broader trend in the restructuring of traditional retail formats, as well as changing consumer and shopper trends. As a result, it has been recognised that one of the consequences of these trends have produced negative impacts for traditional high streets where frequent store closures have intensified these trends resulting in a decline in the diversity and vitality of the retail offer within many town centres. This has given rise to concerns about the current role and function of town centres in which their dominant purpose is to provide local access to a range of retail and services in order to meet local consumer’s basic needs and necessities. Moreover, while it is important to acknowledge the effects of changing retailer and consumer practices, (including the impact of intermediary factors such as the prevalence of e-commerce and omni-channel retailing, recessionary impacts post-2008, and the changing preferences and consumption options of a changing population demographic), there remains a particular uneasiness about what the future holds for town centres.
Reflecting on the challenge for a lot of the UK’s town centres and high streets, and where we are going with it, I recalled how a curious thing occurred to me quite a few years ago. I was writing up my PhD findings on the impact of urban forms and equity in access to local services, and realised that, contrary to what most people think, and, despite living on an island, there is no shortage of space. I had started out thinking that space was at a premium in the UK, that it is in such short supply, this explained why developers buy it up in their gazillions, retrospectively. This assumed shortage explained the prices developers are willing to pay (the belief that something is in short supply) and hence, the development of an industry in itself: real estate. Land parcels are then subdivided and new housing built, and a profit to be made, otherwise why bother. Sadly, too often in the UK, this has resulted in rabbit hutches on postage stamps with house purchasers given little difference in the offers available. Apparently, according to the UK’s national housebuilders federation (NHBF), ‘this is what people want’.
But, I could not have been more wrong about space being in shortage and by extension, that that explained the high cost to own it and consume it: postage stamps with rabbit hutches anyone?
It is apparent that there is an explicit spatial dimension which is relevant to urban form. Issues of social order and social capital and belonging and identity encompass features of the built environment that characterise urban structural form. The roads and highways as well as streets and their design and layout give way to a particular urban form at the micro level of the neighbourhood and block. The link between the separation and integration of pedestrians, the residential context and cars would perhaps be one example where social order is duly imposed by the state. The design of streets and the regulation and control of traffic could influence spatial access to services as well as cognitive perceptions about safety and quality of experience of access.
Rethinking Space as the Solution to High Street Woes
Whatever you want to call it, whichever perspective you feel more comfortable with, the idea of space is different for everyone. Space is untouchable, you cannot smell it, you cannot feel it, you cannot negotiate with it. You cannot even have a relationship with it and you cannot compete with it. It is ever present, yet, we cannot see it. So why do we place such a premium on it? All of those assumptions, are of course, wrong, to an extent.
We touch space every day, you can smell spaces (think about the urban bakery, breweries and then think about the country pub, with horse shit, grass and flowers). You would intuitively know that the smell of cow dung in the city would enliven our senses – we would instinctively question how and why we are smelling such a sniff in the city. We feel space. In fact, space is about our cognitive and perceptive abilities and how best these are expressed into physical objects or space that gives us the most benefit psychologically, environmentally, emotionally, respiratorally and cardiovascularly (I made up the latter two words).
Social Space and Physical Space
In the context of local neighbourhood access to services and urban forms, the idea of perceptual space (Harvey, 1973) can affect the decision on whether to take advantage of the proximity to services. Perceptual space largely draws upon ideas about the different ways local environments can affect us psychologically. Perceptual space is primarily experienced through the senses and as Harvey has argued, ‘There is a need to demonstrate some structural isomorphism between the geometry uses and particular perceptual experiences’, (1973, p.28-29) to understand social processes. In the psychology of place for instance, this is basically about addressing how our local environment of the place where we live, work and leisure affects our cognitive and perceptible processes of the brain. These in turn will shape how we will behave and function in a place.
The psychology of place matters as the quality of the spaces that we move around in can affect us without us even being aware that it is affecting us. Nervous systems can be affected by how we feel in a place when we experience the place and its environment. For example, anxieties and fears may develop if you do not feel ‘safe’ in an area. Why you do not feel safe can for example, be because of a lack of attention to design and quality of spaces including street layout, accessibility, and how spaces intersect with buildings and roads. For Castello, who writes about the meaning of place believes that some elements of this ‘objective stimuli’ (optical, tactual, acoustic and kinsethic) affect sight, and that, ‘tactile sensations are transmitted by contact with the materials used for construction of the place, smells enable the identification of places, coolness or warmth accurately capturing the quality of a place; some places are harmonious and others unbearably noisy, and some can stimulate or whet the appetite so the physical form then plays a determining role in perceptual phenomena’, (Castello, 2010).
Harvey argues that we need to understand social processes via an understanding of social space, because this ‘… is complex, non-homogenous, perhaps discontinuous, and almost certainly different from the physical space in which the engineer and the planner typically work’, (1973, p.35). For Harvey, considerations must be given to how these ideas of personal space arise, how they are moulded by experience, and how stable they are in the ‘face of a changing spatial form’, (Harvey, 1973, p.35). Space must be understood and to do this consideration must be given to its symbolic meaning and its complex impact upon behaviour as it is mediated by the cognitive processes (Harvey, 1973, p.36). He further adds that, ‘One of the benefits of developing this view of space is that it seems capable of integrating the geographical and the sociological imaginations…without an adequate understanding of social processes in all their complexity, we cannot hope to understand social space in all its complexity’, (1973, p.36). This is significant for equity in access to services and urban forms as perceptions of the local neighbourhood may affect how and why individuals may or may not use local services, even if they are located in close proximity to them (i.e. town centres and footfall…)
One way we can look at or understand space is how we share it between humans and things. After all, space is not human. But remarkably, what humans and space share is the idea of function and purpose. Space, like humans, carve out a role for themselves, and that role may be realised, and, it may change - over time. In changing over time, it creates and recreates an identity. Like a woman having her first child, her role and her sense of identity changes and it can be difficult as she takes on this added responsibility of caring and nurturing her offspring. It's a commitment she will see through.
Space is rather much like this.
If we think about the nervous breakdown of the high street and the transformation of retail and the sector generally in the UK, then we are really thinking about space on the high street. The space there had an identity. It's where we see shops, people, cars, buildings and roads and streets. All of these negotiating with each other within this space (but they are not are they as one is always dominating the other in most people’s experience). As each of these characteristics of high streets interact and shape the high street, so does the identity of the space become known (intuitively and subconsciously) but we never, really, if we are honest, consider the purpose and function of the space which when observed, is occupied. We assume its identity is within it: it is just a space.
Let's think about space on the high street by observing it more closely; and let's draw an analogy with the practice of filial cannibalism…yes, animals that eat their offspring!
Let’s keep it simple to start with by thinking about resources first.
Command over urban resources, as services illustrate, can refer to both the institutions that provide them (both private and public); but it may also refer to the preferences and cognitive skills which people possess to help them exploit the resource system (Harvey, 1973, p.69). This, it is argued, is not so easily resolved in examining equity in access and the impact of urban forms - particularly if we accept there is no single geography of services (Ward, 2009) and there are, as some have argued, ‘diminishing conceptual returns of thinking of services in this way’, (Ward, 2009). The main narrative therefore, is a reflection of the author’s interpretation of literatures which have attempted to provide a theoretical basis for understanding why services are located in certain locations and why we observe patterns in the distribution of services. From a city or urban perspective, services are viewed as, what Harvey refers to as an ‘urban resource’ (Harvey, 1973).
In reference to Castell’s Geography of Collective Consumption (1977) Pinch (1985) asserts that in advanced industrial societies, two basic processes exist: the production of services and the consumption of services. The first process, production – refers to the making of all goods and services required by the members of the society in order to keep the society in existence; the second process – consumption, refers to the utilisation of these goods and services by the members of the society (Pinch, 1985, p.5-6). Utilisation is often observed after purchase of some good or service, and the high street is more often where we observe the act of purchase. The act of purchase is before the act of consuming. One cannot consume without purchase (or exchange).
Let’s think about this a little bit more here. Why does a wolf spider eat its offspring? Because it lacks the opportunity to purchase. It may well love its offspring so much, but knows it will face the same dangers so the creature’s instinct is to eat its offspring, to protect it. Now I understand why spiders cast webs: it lacks the opportunity to purchase. It’s consumption of its purchase is the key to its survival, and survival is instinctive, I believe, in every species on earth.
In a short article by Andrea Thompson, she discusses a piece of research by zoologists who have observed filial cannibalism. This is the act of eating one's offspring, and it occurs in many different types of animals, including bank voles, house finches, wolf spiders and many fish species. Weirdly, argues the research, and paradoxically, all of the species also care for the young that they do not eat. Scientists, says Thompson, were hard-pressed to explain how such seemingly opposing behaviours could co-exist in the same species and reasoned that there must be some evolutionary benefit to the practice.
"If it doesn't confer some sort of benefit, you wouldn't expect it to have evolved," (Klug & Bonsall, in Thompson, 2007)
Writing about Klug and Bonsall’s research, Thompson highlights how they found that several factors contributed to parents developing a taste for their own offspring. In some cases, cannibalizing their own young puts the same evolutionary pressure on the eggs that a predator would: the faster the eggs develop, the greater their chances of survival.
I thought I would be a bit cheeky and play around with filial cannibalism in the context of retail, developers, streets, town centres, roads and traffic.
Now let’s rephrase this last statement by Thompson and the research she is referring to and we will replace the words with the following:
‘…they found that several factors contributed to developers/local authority infrastructure departments developing a taste for their own practices. In some cases, cannibalizing their own ideas puts the same evolutionary pressure on the incubation that a competitor would: the faster the spaces develop, the greater their chances of survival’.
Cannibalism was also found to increase the parent's reproductive rate by apparently increasing mate attractiveness, though Klug says they're unsure as to why this might be. Some energy benefit to eating the eggs was also observed, but no one benefit alone accounted for the spread of filial cannibalism through the population.
"You can't explain filial cannibalism in all of these animals with just one benefit," Klug said.
Now let’s rephrase the above too:
‘Developing a taste for your own practices was also found to increase the developer’s reproductive rate by apparently increasing investor attractiveness, though McKenzie say’s they’re unsure as to why this might be. Some monetary benefit to eating the incubation was also observed, but no one benefit accounted for the spread of the practice through the industry’.
Klug said filial cannibalism could be a way to root out offspring that take too long to mature and therefore require a little too much parental care—this strategy would conserve the parents' energy for subsequent, faster-developing batches of young.
"They initially overproduce offspring and then later remove some of the inferior offspring," Klug explained.
Now let’s replace some key words here too:
‘McKenzie said the practice could be a way to root out slow returns that take too long to mature and therefore require a little too much stewardship – this strategy would conserve the developer’s profits for subsequent, quicky-return parcels of land’.
‘They initially overdevelop the practice and then later abandon some of the inferior developments’, McKenzie explained.
General competition within a species for resources may also limit parents to the amount of energy and time they can spend raising their young, so they force their eggs to grow up fast or get eaten.
Let’s reword this last one too:
‘General competition within the industry for resources may also limit developers to the amount of money and time they can spend stewarding their own practices, so they force their incubation to develop fast or get abandoned’.
We should think about spiders that eat their offspring because it may well help us understand why our spaces seem so shit. And there are many bad places with poor environments. I principally blame (yes – blame), our love of the car and a lack of resources.
I answer this by stealing the idea from a 1957 book on ‘Parking’ by two American academics Geoffrey Baker and Bruno Funaro. Here is what they set out in their first page of the first chapter of their book. The average adult dressed in a business suit and a winter coat can stand comfortably in a space of 5 sq.ft. Packed in the Glasgow subway or the London Underground at rush hour, he may be reduced to 2 sq.ft. or less. Walking briskly – about 3 m.p.h. – 8 sq.ft. is a reasonable and safe allowance on a crowded busy thoroughfare.
But, let’s dress my same man in a 2014 Dacia Duster or a new 2015 Range Rover, and he needs a road space of approximately 150 sq.ft. just to stand still in a traffic jam (or parking space). To get out of the car or to move in any direction except straight forward or backward-sideways for example – he will require at least another 150 sq.ft. for maneuvering. Driving at an average speed of 30 m.p.h. (the authors had 35 m.p.h.), to move with reasonable safety he will need approximately 600 sq.ft. of roadway. If he wants to be relaxed as well as safe when driving, he will need twice that amount of space. Driving on an 70 m.p.h. motorway (the authors had 60 m.p.h.) needs twice as much space again.
When a pedestrian puts on his car he increases his bulk by about thirty times. And the car is the unit dimension of all parking space. Compared with a pedestrian, the modern British car is extremely limited in its movements. It cannot even move sideways, let alone walk upstairs or jump across a ditch. Largely because of this limited usefulness the car spends a very large part of its life in storage. Accordingly, the authors writing at the time, calculated that the average car is in motion only 500 hours per year. The remaining 8,260 hours it is left parked on a paved surface.
Above all, the car, the authors go on, is personal and flexible. It will go where and when its owner demands – no waiting, no crowding. Moreover the out-of-pocket cost may be less than taking the bus, particularly if more than one person makes the trip.
Cars, in fact, have been increasing faster than people. So what is the point of my points? There is some truth in the contention that the cause of our present traffic difficulties is too much traffic rather than too little parking. An increasingly dense building complex must attempt to accommodate an expanding volume of automobile traffic. Cars are more numerous, larger, more used, more comfortable and convenient, more necessary, than any other form of transportation today.
Traffic is where the people are. But where are the people in the high streets and town centres? Traffic is in town centres and high streets because we have spent millions of pounds creating parking lots, car parks, and parking meters on shopping streets. But where are the people? When people all want to go home at the same time, (work day ends) or where people have to ascribe to the hospital’s visiting times, they all move at the same point in time, and therefore, space. The engineer’s excuse for those motorways and new routes on vast embankments of fill which have now split apart so many old and established communities. An example of this can be seen in the high density neighbourhoods of Drumoyne and Linthouse and Govan which surround the new Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Glasgow (opened in 2015). The new routes (and the Fastlink bus service) are called ‘desire lines’, directed by a single purpose – automobile traffic speed – with no thought given to possible social and economic and aesthetic side effects. Nor, indeed, to the problem of where to park all the cars that the new motorway, arterial route or bus lane will bring to the development, neighbourhood, or town centre or city. ‘Motorists’ (to coin a Daily Mail phrase), cannot be shoppers, or workers, or theatregoers or hospital visitors, until the car is parked.
The point is, until we address our love affair with the car, traffic engineers will continue, along with the planners of ‘infrastructure’, to simply bypass (no pun intended) the reasons our shopping parades, town centres and high streets are bereft of people. In the city it may require 30 acres of demolition, which kills a social pattern or adds to housing shortage. And always more roads = more traffic = more parking.
Parking is not an isolated problem ‘for traffic specialists only’. We are all part of it and therefore, we all provide the solution too. Retail and town centres are, more than at any other time in history, are evolving, not dying. It is important we remember the distinction. Let us hope that their evolvement will be just like filial cannibalism. If retailers and town centres cannot survive, the solution will be in the problem – as long as we master what the problem is. Sometimes there is no explanation. But that will never, be accepted as the excuse to ‘muddle through’. By tackling the space, you tackle the problem. Nothing much scientific here.
"If it doesn't confer some sort of benefit, you wouldn't expect it to have evolved”.
Baker, G. & Funaro, B., (1957), Parking, Reinhold Publishing Corporation
Castello, L., (2010), Rethinking the Meaning of Place: Conceiving Place in Architecture-Urbanism, Ashgate
Harvey, D., 1973, Social Justice and the City, Edward Arnold
Pinch, S., (1985), Cities and Services: The Geography of Collective Consumption, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Thompson, A., (2007), ‘Why some animals eat their offspring’, found at http://www.livescience.com/2053-animals-eat-offspring.html
Ward, K., (2009), ‘Services’, The Dictionary of Human Geography, in Gregory, D., Johnston, R., Pratt, G., Watts, M.J. & Whatmore, S., (Eds), Wiley Blackwell.