Where are we most likely to find models for a viable economy? We recently discovered there are more answers than we realised without looking very far.
There is a strong economic case for vibrant local shops. It is based on how money flows around a local economy. How many times money circulates in an area is just as important as the amount of money flowing into it. The key to successful high streets is interdependent, inter-trading local businesses. 1
Withington Road First Steps is a consultation project about the shopping area on Withington Road which is in Whalley Range, Manchester. The exercise grew out of local dissatisfaction about the area. We talked to traders, including managers of local health services. There are undoubtedly many things which can be improved; and we also found that the area has many strengths on which to build.
We started the exercise with preconceived ideas about what the shops and services had to offer Withington Road and what they wished for in return. Our expectations were based largely on the look of their shop front, the shop name or personal past experiences, often from a long time ago.
We started by looking at the strengths and moved on to what traders would like in the future and how that might be achieved.
Our preconceptions of what some shops and services had to offer were challenged once we stepped inside. Whilst the shop signs or front give potential customers a clue as to what is sold or provided inside, it is not until you speak to the people behind the counter that you see all that is on offer.
As traders shared their stories with us it became clear that the compassion, humour, diversity, time, conversation and humanity they bring to Withington Road, are a huge part of the offer and often the reason why many customers return again and again.
We left each shop door with a growing curiosity about who we’d find behind the next door and what they had to give.
We were amazed and excited to discover a more diverse range of shops than we expected (see box).
We felt incredibly privileged to talk with traders and humbled by learning more about the challenges traders were living with day in and day out, a stone’s throw from our homes.
Often their success was despite limited financial resources and based on vision and hard work.
Traders want to stay in the area if they can develop their businesses where they are. They are appreciative of their staff most of whom live in the area – so they are also likely to spend their wages in the area – the reason why local shops are so good for the local economy.
We realised that most traders saw compassion as the route to their success and recognised the enormous amount of wellbeing and social care work they and their often low paid staff do, which is unrecognised, invisible, unvalued and unpaid.
Traders believe that by having satisfied customers, positive links with the community and other traders and caring about the area makes it safer for everyone.
We fed back our findings to traders and believe that if these findings are shared widely it can contribute to a more up to date image of the shopping area. There are things that traders as well as the community are keen to improve and there are differences between individual traders and traders and people who live in the area about their aspirations for the area.
There are also broader questions being asked by local community groups about who decides what shops are developed in the area. This may concern how the interests of people making a living and others interests can be accommodated. There are big questions here. Is it possible to have a successful shopping centre which provides for the common good? In other words which does not encourage consumerism beyond the scope of planetary resources and provides decent affordable products and services for local residents and decent standards of living for traders and staff?
The time is right for more dialogue, greater shared understanding to increase everyone influencing and supporting one another. We have great hopes for our local shopping area, will use it more and have learnt loads from these golden gems in our community about growing the shoots of a viable economy in Manchester.
Eve Holt, Dave Saunders and Judith Emanuel discovered this light on the viable economy as part of the Withington Road First Steps consultation. Judith is also part of Steady State Manchester)