When it’s cool not to be hip in retail

Yesterday I was talking to a friend about the Caledonian Road, a street in north London that runs down to King’s Cross. While King’s Cross has come up in the world, with massive new development and a switch from seedy to trendy, Caledonian Road is largely unchanged except at the very bottom. The shops are still all independents, a mix of small food shops, cafes, newsagents and random but vaguely useful retail.

My friend said that the reason was a combination of difficult nearby housing estates and the fact that the units were very small so that unless a retailer could combine two adjacent stores they would find it hard to sell, for example, clothing with the need for changing spaces.

Later in the day I opened my AJ and saw a really interesting article by Will Hurst that looks at Rye Lane in Peckham, south London. This is a similar area and the analysis talks not only about small units but about them being subdivided among different services. The result, the article says, is messy and not particularly pretty. But there is some detailed academic analysis that shows that the return on rentals is actually greater than for many chains. The retailers are relatively big employers per square foot and they serve most of the local community – just not the gentrifiers.

And the role of architects in all this? Both the article itself and the comments below it are quite gloomy . Architects’ schemes can make streets like these look more elegant, can raise rental values – and can probably bring in chains and homogenisation. Scruffy streets like this are, said the article, going against the idea of the death of the high street. They are thriving. And, I and many believe, what gives character to London and to other UK cities.

Does this mean that we just have to tell well-meaning architects to keep their hands off our high streets?

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