I am visiting the town of Llanidloes in Wales – the home town of my father’s family. I have visited the town several times a year since I was a small child and have always been fascinated by the changes it has experienced over the years. I have become more observant with my work through Social Spaces… and even more so since we started working on projects linked directly or indirectly to high streets. So while I won’t tell an expert on high street regeneration anything they didn’t know already – I did hope to have a chat about it in the context of my ancestratal town through this blog post.
So today is Christmas Market Day in Llandiloes. They have pulled out all the stops and have closed the street which has filled with a real mixture stalls and products and people – a change from the regular Saturday market which sees only a handful of stalls. There are signs on the lampposts which indicate that there are regeneration efforts being undertaken in Llanidloes.
Previously my father's home and my grandparent's sweet shop
It has always been a lovely little town. My grandparents owned a shop which was first a tailors, then a sweetshop. My ancestral home is now a Cantonese take-away which I don’t mind in the least.
But Llanidloes shows examples of changing fortunes we can see all over Britain.
At it's commercial height it used to have a population of around 5,000 – now about 2,300
It used to have around 25 pubs – now 9
It still has its 8 big churches – now either closed, with small or regular sized congregations.
The 4 main streets which intersect at the old timber market hall used to be site of livestock markets – each of the pubs had large animal pens attached in the street.
There used to be community cinema and more small social clubs than you could name.
All together that amounts to an emormous amount of social interactivity - not present in the town any more. The activity now represents an active, but reduced local community.
6 of the 8 big churches in Llanidloes
It has changed – and out of a much longer period of economic decline it has in many ways developed a rural Wales charm of its own. Like nearby Machynlleth, home of the Centre for Alternative Technology, Llanidloes has a counter-culture feel to it, a home for aging hippies, and as wikipedia informs me is known to local police as ‘planet Idloes’. It has a marvellous book shop and a great vegetarian café (along with a compulsory Milk Bar).
It’s a town that has seen its fortunes change dramatically due to trade. In the 60s it lost its train station and more recently the by-pass was built – both contributors to a decline in local industry and business, making it less attractive as a place for small scale manufacturing, now largely closed, while also helping passing visitors to Wales to avoid coming into the town.
This isn’t all a depressing tale though, it is a beautiful, if quiet, place to live. In 2008, Powys, the larger area around Llanidloes, was shown to be the happiest place to live in Britain. But it is also dwindling economically, with the classic scenario of young people moving elsewhere to find work … and this will likely continue.
It has always been called a ‘market town’. Trade and exchange have always been central to what has happened in the town and I am becoming more and more convinced that the large focus currently being on regenerating high streets across a wide range of projects is a vital one. Over the last couple of decades there have been many attempts, some in fact quite effective, to make schools, community centres, leisure centres, museums or reinvigorated faith-based buildings ‘the hub’ of the community – the central focus for a wide range of activity.
But in terms of history the strongest example of a tangible space that encourages human interaction, sometimes transactional, sometimes social, has always been driven by trade, and it still offers us a really powerful catalyst for overall community-level change - but one that needs to be connected with everything else that is going on.
An in-depth study of the Chicago heat wave of 1995, which resulted in 465 heat-related deaths, attributed these deaths to a combination of the cities responses to the emergency. Services such as hospitals could not cope and many shut their doors, the public opened up fire hydrants all over the city, leaving thousands of homes without water. But curiously when they made comparisons of which areas in the city suffered the most number of deaths they discovered that one of the areas with the least deaths was a Latino area known as Little Village.
Eric Klinenberg author of Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago (you can read a review here) has studied this in detail and made comparisons between Little Village and North Lawderdale
“The two communities are comparable in many ways: they have comparable elderly populations, roughly similar proportions of which live alone or in poverty. North Lawndale is ninety-six per cent black. Little Village is eighty-five per cent Latino. In the heat wave, nineteen people died in North Lawndale (a rate of forty per one hundred thousand). In Little Village, only three people died (a rate of four per one hundred thousand). Why was the death rate in North Lawndale so much higher?
A commonly proposed explanation was that Latinos had stronger family networks than African-Americans, especially networks spanning generations. Klinenberg dismisses this idea, arguing that, stereotypes notwithstanding, there is nothing about Latinos per se that disposes them to have dense family networks.
Family ties did not save people, Klinenberg argues, rather the kind of neighborhoods they lived in did.
North Lawndale has a ‘bombed-out’ appearance, with empty lots, little street life, few shops or markets, and a great deal of violent crime. Many people, especially seniors, are afraid to leave their homes. Though there are many churches, they are not so well-rooted in the community and find it difficult to provide social services to the elderly. Little Village, by contrast, is bustling with commercial activity on busy streets. There are plenty of people out on the street, shopping or simply hanging out. There are few empty lots. Local churches offer a variety of social activities for seniors. Little Village’s population grew by a third between 1970 and 1990, while North Lawndale’s more than halved.
When the heat wave came to both places, these differences mattered a great deal. In Little Village, the people most at risk of dying were able to leave their homes and go and buy supplies or simply rest in air- conditioned stores. It was not too dangerous to be outside at night. They knew people locally to call for help or check in with. In short: Residents of the most impoverished, abandoned, and dangerous places in Chicago died alone because they lived in social environments that discouraged departure from the safe houses where they had burrowed, and created obstacles to social protection that are absent from more tranquil and prosperous areas. (p.127).
Most of the African American neighborhoods with high heat wave death rates had been abandoned—by employers, stores, and residents—in recent decades. The social ecology of abandonment, dispersion, and decay makes systems of social support exceedingly difficult to sustain.
Indy Johar wrote earlier this year about reinventing the corner shop in New Start magazine:
‘It can be a platform for so many things – sharing goods made in different houses, bringing together the problem of food wastage with local skills around baking and cooking.
‘It’s about reinventing and supporting these small everyday fractals of real lived society and making them so much better, so much more competitive and value added that they challenge the big boys. That’s the imagination challenge and its absolutely possible.’
Perhaps we need to broaden our view of trade and exchange and view high streets not as places you go to buy things, but as whole environments where every kind of interaction social, commercial, inventive is deliberately and strategically fostered? But also perhaps think far more ambitiously and use business more cleverly as tools for societal and civic development rather than just ends. This feels very different in practice to social responsibility agendas.
For example, in Las Vegas entrepenuer Tony Hseih, chief executive of Zappos started a $35million urban experiment to build ‘the most community-focused large city in the world’. Zappos company culture is described as ‘zanny’ … although their work place practice of everyone sitting in the same open space and employees switch desks every few months in order to get to know one another better, seems just sensible.
When the Las Vegas city government moved out of City Hall Zappos moved in.
"Then he got to thinking: If he was going to move at least 1,200 employees, why not make it possible for them to live nearby? And if they could live nearby, why not create an urban community aligned with the culture of Zappos, which encourages the kind of “serendipitous interactions” that happen in offices without walls?”."
The adventures and misadventures of Hseih's activity so far on the project include some classic mistakes connected with the existing community and are the subject of this long article in the New York Times. Among those adventures is the realization that of the 10,000 new residents the project hopes to attract will not all be able to live locally.”.. perhaps that some could be “commuters” — as long as they engaged in “approximately 1,000 hours per year of serendipitous encounters.”
"Richard Florida, urban theorist and author of “The Rise of the Creative Class.” doesn’t withhold praise for the Downtown Project, but Florida thinks it needs a “robust community process,” in which an outside group could help build consensus with the surrounding community and create a plan that takes their wishes into account. “You can have serendipity,” he said. “But when you’re building a community, you also need a strategy.”
But it is an interesting time to read about these experiments. Why couldn’t a local council act in a similar way? Lambeth Council have their own plans to modernize the town hall in a way that could help it become a catalyst …
Beam and Anchor
And what of smaller collectives such as Beam and Anchor and The Common Room idea we prototyped last month in Norwich, or the Creative Coop in Colchester - can groups of active, enterprising people in themselves act as engine rooms of civic and commerical change?
There are many of us trying out new things in high streets. In conversations with other people working in and around this work recently, both as professionals and volunteers, it is clear that there is a great deal to share around what works best in which context, what offers a sustainable future …