In this blog post Charles Martin suggests that new thinking is required, in terms of how to provide and manage parking provision, if robust proposals for regeneration in our outer London district centres are to be fully realised. The potential for these centres to be even more appealing places to visit would be further enhanced, he adds, if we all considered making occasional changes to the way we travelled locally too.
During September and October 2011 Sutton Council held a consultation asking people who live, work, shop or go to school in Worcester Park or North Cheam to let them know their issues and ideas for improvements in and around these district centres. It was an opportunity for people to express their views on the improvements that had already been completed earlier in the year in Worcester Park (close to the station in Central Road and Green Lane as part of the TfL funded ‘Streets for People’ project), and also to suggest and prioritise ideas for further enhancements elsewhere in Worcester Park and in North Cheam.
This preliminary consultation took place in order to identify the key issues, and the level of public support, for possible infrastructure improvements that could be implemented as part of the Worcester Park Integrated Transport Package. This integrated transport package is similar in many ways to the Wallington Integrated Transport Package (completed in June 2011), where the emphasis was on improving public space (e.g. paving, street lighting and seating), providing support for businesses, redeveloping vacant properties, and improving conditions for pedestrians and cyclists.
In view of the consultation, I revisited North Cheam in mid-October (2011) to endeavour to make an assessment of the main shopping street, London Road, largely from a pedestrians’ perspective. Around the same time I also headed over to New Malden High Street, in neighbouring Kingston, just ten minutes from North Cheam by bus or twenty minutes by gentle cycle ride. I knew that New Malden High Street had been re-vamped in 2005, in order to reinforce the impression that the High Street was not simply a thoroughfare. Many of the resultant improvements to the streetscape had been acclaimed by those who lived and worked there, and by transport and urban design professionals. I decided not to visit Worcester Park, largely because the utility works that were taking place at the time may have made any comparative assessment with other locations a little unfair. I was also more familiar with Worcester Park than I was with North Cheam or New Malden anyway.
One of my initial conclusions from the visits was that a major challenge for any outer London district centre is likely to be around how best to manage the existing requirement for parking (customer, residential and delivery) whilst maintaining the economic viability and prosperity of the businesses operating in these district centres. I couldn’t help thinking that both Worcester Park and North Cheam are, to a greater or lesser extent, blighted by the prominence given to parking for private vehicles. If the local economy of a shopping district is boosted by free and easy access by car, how much is it deflated by the poor urban realm that can result? I believe that a key requirement for the enhancement of any centre is to get this balance right.
In parts of North Cheam, particularly along the west side of London Road (to the north of the intersection with Cheam Common Road), vehicles are permitted to park head-on to the shop fronts. This may enable great accessibility for those driving and may be a requirement for residents, but is likely to be quite a turn-off for anyone contemplating to visit and shop there. It certainly discourages anything like café culture, and does little to promote a feeling of well-being in terms of just wanting to spend time in the area.
Meanwhile, in both centres, car-parks are provided close to the general shopping areas which, for most of the time, have ample capacity. In this respect, however, it is a pity that when Sainsbury’s in North Cheam was developed, and the site in Worcester Park now occupied by Waitrose was redeveloped, their associated car-parks were not designed perhaps with more of an emphasis on serving the whole community rather than just their own stores (i.e. linked to their neighbouring main shopping streets in a more pedestrian-friendly way). Providing some car-parking spaces associated with, but not on, the main shopping streets could facilitate the removal of some on-road/on-footway parking, and enable this space to be used for more constructive purposes (in a similar way to the recent enhancements in Wallington).
Charging for parking is inevitably unpopular, initially at least. But, in many ways, not to charge does have a cost. A small proportionate parking fee, in recognition of some of the cost of providing that parking space, could help motorists consider other transport options as well – with the associated benefits this would bring (to both them and to the public realm). Technology can help with this by making the car-park payment mechanism much easier through the use of smartcards, like Oyster, or contactless bankcard. Charging for parking would also work with the behavioural change programme, Smarter Travel Sutton (2007-2009), rather than against it. A reduction in the total percentage of all trips made by car to access these district centres would be a good aspiration to have for the medium term too. And rather than call the payment a parking charge, how about branding it as a community fund?
To give the public realm increased value, and to further enhance the sense of place, the maximum traffic speeds on roads traversing the centres would ideally be set at no higher than 20 mph. Benefits of this would include a safer environment for everyone, a boost for business (as it could reduce the chance of someone not bothering to cross the road to access other shops), and it would moderate traffic noise too.
My trip to New Malden reminded me that it is not necessary to go too far from either North Cheam or Worcester Park to see a relatively good example of what can be done. Along the length of New Malden High Street, for example, the addition of an informal central reservation means that it is easier for people to cross the road. There is a bit more “give and take” between all the users of the street. De-cluttered pavements (of sufficient width relative to the carriageway) give a feeling that space is equitably apportioned between everyone, and this must help give the place a buzz and well-being factor during the day and into the evening.
The district centres at the heart of New Malden, Worcester Park and North Cheam are evidentially different in many ways. They will have different demographics, and they have evolved over time to reflect the needs of the immediate area and the roads that pass through them. Traffic volumes are probably greater in North Cheam than they are in Worcester Park, while New Malden probably has fewer vehicles passing through then either of them. Nevertheless, I would like to pose the question – could some of the award-winning principles applied to the make-over of the High Street in New Malden work in Worcester Park and in North Cheam? I am sure the answer depends in part on whether there is the necessary aspiration and determination by politicians and decision makers to recognise what is required, and then to make the case to retailers, businesses and existing users.
Also, to a degree, it will depend on all of us who use these centres to ask ourselves what are we able to do to bring it about. In particular, it may depend on whether those who drive are prepared to consider the benefits that could result from just a little bit of change in their behaviour – so accept a 20 mph speed limit, and accept some changes to both parking location and cost (consider it as a community fund). Maybe instead of taking the car to town for every trip, consider taking the bus or just walk instead on occasion. Town centres will always benefit from the occasional make-over, of course. But they can also be enhanced by how we use them.
Clearly there are a lot of uncertainties in the equation of how Worcester Park and North Cheam can best be enhanced. But I certainly believe that both of these suburban shopping centres have great potential to become “destination places” in their own right. If we let them, that is.
(1) All photos taken by the author. The North Cheam photos on Sunday 23 October 2011 (between about 3.30 and 5.30pm), and New Malden photos on Tuesday 25 October 2011 (between about 12.30 and 2pm). It is acknowledged that street vitality will look different on different days of the week (especially between Sunday and Monday) and at different times of day (afternoon and lunchtime).
(2) On 17 January 2012 the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, announced the winners in the Second Round of his Outer London Fund. This included confirmation that the LB of Sutton had been successful in their bid for North Cheam and Worcester Park.