Norwich Early Evening Events

Observation: I like Norwich’s outdoor events.  They create a great sense of community and celebration that can sometimes feel lacking when day-to-day life becomes monotonous and mundane.

Most recently, I enjoyed playing a reaction-time game at St Andrews Plain and, that same evening, a little salsa dancing was livening up Gentleman’s Walk.  Both were part of a programme of activities called ‘Head Out Not Home’ being coordinated by Norwich Business Improvement District (BID) to promote Norwich’s early evening economy.

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Discussion: So why do Norwich BID think that Norwich’s early evening economy is in need of promotion?  Well, because the precursor to Norwich BID, the City Centre Partnership, had identified that the city centre goes quiet between 5pm and 8pm, meaning that businesses which do open at those times lose custom, and shops tend to close up rather than stay open to serve those who can’t get to them during the day.

When consulting as to the reasons why people tended not to stay out in Norwich during the early evening, the City Centre Partnership asked a multiple choice question on their website.  They gave lack of transport, difficulty of access and lack of amenity (not enough to do) as possible reasons for the early evening lull.  The real reason, though, was not suggested and is not improved by the programme of events they are now putting on.

The real reason, in my opinion, is that Norwich is currently oriented around the commuter. The city centre is workplace-dense and there are few flats and houses.  According to 2001 census data, the workplace population of Mancroft Ward (which covers much of the city centre) was 28,499, whilst the resident population was 3,581, meaning that at least the difference, around 25,000 people commute into Norwich City Centre everyday, not just from the suburbs of Norwich but all over Norfolk.  This tends to mean that people working in the city during the day will generally be keen to get  back home to their families at the end of the day, commuting back home and not returning until the next workday.

Staying out is often an inconvenience, for various reasons.  For one thing, it is unfamiliar – people have a routine. Someone might get the same bus in the morning, or know exactly how long the car journey will be, and how much to expect to pay for parking.  There are also dinner arrangements, which may get costly if you stay out, and of course if you drive in, you have to avoid the alcohol unless you sort out other arrangements for getting home.  What’s more, friends and family may be based elsewhere, and so even if you stay in the city after work, they may have to make a trip in specially.

As well as the reasons why staying in the city may be inconvenient, there may also be things which draw people to their home area.  This might be the desire to get back to children or spouses, friends or other family.  It might be the routine and familiarity of home – knowing the area well, which pub you like and knowing that you can walk back home after a few pints. And then from a financial point of view, eating at home is cheaper and home entertainment is likely to be cheaper than entertainment in the city.

This indicates to me that if we want to revive the early evening economy, it is not a simple matter of a bit of promotion, it is actual changing the social structure of the city as a whole.

European countries show how our cities can be structured differently for a better early evening vibrancy, and not just by having better weather! They have more houses near their city centres. They also tend to have employment zones more evenly distributed over the city and district, in regional centres and smaller hubs of work activity.  Their public transport is also tailored to a habitant lifestyle too – they run regular services right into the evening that serve the multiple hubs, not just into and out of the city centre.

Norwich is not in this situation, but it has the potential to be. What then needs to happen?

Travelling into the city centre can seem a chore if you’re commuting to work, or if you’re having to compete for a parking space with others who’ve headed in to do their shopping.  But if the city centre were not to just be promoted as an employment or retail destination, but rather as a place that has all the necessary components to live a full and rich life, we’d start to see a change of culture and attitudes to what city life is all about.  In the city centre, there is not just shopping, but leisure, events, dining, friends.  And most critically, in my opinion, homes.

There are far too many empty offices in the city centre on first and second floors.  There is also a much larger demand than supply of city centre flats and maisonettes.  This will not only mean that there is a nearby population to use shops and services, but also increases night-time safety, as there are more people to keep an eye on activity.  It can also lead to the establishment of a city centre community – an aliveness throughout the day and night which is otherwise absent. Civic facilities (i.e. those that provide for the whole city) are bound to  become dead if the people they serve head out to the suburbs each evening rather than live nearby.

For those who prefer to live in suburbs and the countryside, there should be regional centres with their own distinctive character and employment opportunities for the people who live near them.  These should be serviced by frequent and reliable transport links, so that nowhere feels too isolated from the city as a whole.

Conclusion: Convert empty upper floors to flats to establish a city centre community and a culture of urban living. At the same time, encourage regional centres and give them unique characters.  Link them with reliable low-carbon transport links. Through policy and proactive action, pursue a balance of uses in the city centre and in each regional centre so that the default lifestyle is that of urban habitant, not commuter.