The Neighbourhood Centres

The Stow 4impossible to see from one end to the other. To Gibberd’s dismay, the Board insisted that the shopping street be open to traffic. He argued that it wasn’t necessary to be able to park right in front of the shops, but there was a fear that if this wasn’t possible it might be difficult to rent the shops, and the income from them was an essential part of the business plan for the New Town. In time the wisdom of Gibberd’s position was realized, and the area was pedestrianized.

The South Square, centred on a group of trees that had previously graced the grounds of Mark Hall Manor, contained the Library, the Community Centre, a dance hall and café. The centre had to have a pub, of course, and like all the others in the new town was named after a local butterfly, the Essex Skipper in this case. As an experiment, a successful one as it turned out, a small group of service industry buildings were erected adjacent to the centre. In its 1951 ‘Review of the Year’ The Architect’s Journal praised The Stow, as ‘a rare exception to the criticism, justly made of New Towns generally, that they lack urbanity’. The centre has struggled over the years, perhaps because of the original plan to include 50 small shops. There was concern about this at the time of construction, and it was decided that the last nine shops should be converted to offices. As the trend in retailing moved to fewer and larger outlets, it has had a hard time competing with the Town Centre and the ‘big box’ outlets in Edinburgh Way.

The first phase of Bush Fair opened in 1958 in the Tye Green quadrant, and benefitted from the experience gained during construction of The Stow. It, too, has a Z-shaped plan, but was designed from the outset to be entirely pedestrianized. It had all the same sorts of facilities: flats, shops, a library and a pub, as well as an adjoining area of small factories and workshops. Although it sounds paternalistic today, it is worth noting that Gibberd wanted these here to provide local employment, especially for women who ‘were tied to the immediate vicinity’ of their homes. It may not seem like much of an accomplishment now, but the juxtaposition of services and light industry with retailing was a major in an era when planning orthodoxy required rigidly demarcated land-use planning. It was another one of Gibberd’s small, but important contributions to the development of the town.

Staple Tye built in 1967, is the third of the neighbourhood centres. It was an experiment, designed as an integrated three-level reinforced concrete. Parking and service areas were located on the ground floor, thirty 30 shops on the first level and flats on the second. The flats bridged the shopping precinct and the stairwells that gave access to them, and the ventilator shafts from the service areas below, disrupted the continuity of the shopping precinct. In the 1990’s it was ‘regenerated’ into a single-level centre with about 20 shops and the flats were demolished.

Staple TyeStaple Tye 2Staple Tye 3

In his retrospective evaluation of the town plan Gibberd arguesd that these three neighbourhood centres demonstrate the evolution of the shopping function in Harlow. The Stow was designed originally as a traditional shopping street, Bush Fair as an open, pedestrianised complex, and Staple Tye was an innovative ‘decked centre’. Finally, when the Harvey Centre was completed in The High, or Town Centre, Harlow had its first enclosed mall.


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