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Columbia Road of the West

By November 29, 2021No Comments

How a community Vision for a new Flower Market on a car park in Chiswick is transforming perceptions and regenerating the High Road.

By Ollie Saunders, Co-founder, Chiswick Flower Market

Hatton Gardens in known for diamonds. Portobello Road is known for antiques.  Brick Lane is known for curry.  Columbia Road is known for flowers.

Our High Streets have always evolved – from their creation in our market towns as we became a nation of shopkeepers, to the impact of the large supermarkets and then out-of-town retail, to the advent of online shopping.  With a third of all retail sales in the UK now made online, this gives an immense opportunity for our High Streets to innovate and evolve once again.  The winners will be those that remain contemporary in a digital age and become places that are engaging to be in.

“I was worried that if we did not have a proactive plan, involving the community, then my local town centre would be toast!”

Several Sundays a year, I would get up early and walk past a large surface car park at the top of my street – always thinking that it would make a wonderful place to have a market.  I would then traipse across town to visit Columbia Road.  My early start was rewarded with bags full of plants and flowers for my garden and allotment – and to enjoy the vibe and buzz of a waking market.  I also witnessed the market’s ever-increasing popularity pump the local retail economy.  From instant coffee and bacon butties in the mid 1990s, the local shops now buzz with trendy coffees and interior design shops.  It has become part of a proper day out in London.

I watched as my local High Street in Chiswick declined – the vacancy rate was uncomfortable despite being a wealthy neighbourhood.  There was a polarising local campaign about cycling and an absence of tangible ways in which to kick start things locally.  I could see no-one able to put my leafy corner of London on the map like Brick Lane or Portobello Road was.

I was worried that if we did not have a proactive plan, involving the community, then my local town centre would be toast!  So I found some friends and we started Chiswick Flower Market in that old car park – which we later discovered was originally the place of a market 100 years ago. 

To make it work, we knew that we had to get the traders that the punters wanted, and the punters that the traders needed in order to come back.  To add to the challenge, there had not been a new flower market in London for 150 years, and we found ourselves in the middle of the first pandemic in 100 years.  We had also never run a market before.

We talked about it being a “Columbia Road of the West” on the basis that we wanted our part of London to be known for its market and to bring both locals into the High Street but also Londoners into Chiswick.   We found data from TfL which showed residents were not even staying locally at the weekend – our local tube station was a massive net exporter of local people on a Sunday morning as they went elsewhere, for them to return later in the day.

As we planned the market, we persuaded some established flower market traders to come to our first market.  They liked the idea and wanted to give it a go.  But I also found a number of small local businesses that had started in the pandemic and were solely selling online.  They were hugely creative and entrepreneurial – from several houseplant vendors with exciting social media to small businesses that grew their own flowers or made their own pots.

At our first market, 30 traders turned up at 6am to set up their stalls.   By the end of the day, we had 7,500 visitors come through the market who – in the aftermath of the first lockdown – needed an outdoor day out in the sunshine to buy flowers and plants.   We found that the established traders had a good day and the online traders loved the new experience of physically meeting their customers rather than sending them their purchases in a cardboard box.

“What we have seen is that the market has brought footfall to Chiswick.  Our data shows that footfall doubles on a Sunday.  Our local retailers tell us they notice the difference and view us as a positive addition.”

We had to deal with the lockdowns that followed but that gave us more time to plan and be creative.  We found more traders who brought interesting things to complement our other traders – from mushroom growing kits to terrariums and cacti, to gold medal winning nurseries selling some of the best plants around.

The market is gaining a reputation for street theatre – we have fire-eaters and stilt walkers, jazz singers and tap dancers.  We have workshops on how to build terrariums or make wreaths.   The team is also energised to make this the most sustainable market there is – from banning plastic bags we are now looking to make sure that the goods sold are peat free, have the lowest possible carbon footprint and are looking to introduce a plastic pot reuse or recycle scheme next year.

And as we are run by volunteers, we are in the luxurious position of having made a surplus to invest back into our local area.  We have already invested in replanting all the flower beds in the market area and have organised a huge Christmas tree which will be turned on by Sophie Ellis-Bextor together this Christmas.  We will hold our largest every market with four choirs singing their hearts out.   We think that will be a crowd-puller and kick start a buoyant Christmas locally as locals sip mulled wine and kids have their faces painted.

What we have seen is that the market has brought footfall to Chiswick.  Our data shows that footfall doubles on a Sunday.  Our local retailers tell us they notice the difference and view us as a positive addition.  Two sister markets have now set up on the second and third Sundays of the month –  a community led cheese market and a commercially operated antiques market.     One of the internet retailers who took a stall has now opened a shop in Chiswick.   Our visitor surveys show that a greater proportion of our visitors are increasingly coming from outside the immediate catchment as confidence in travelling in the aftermath of the pandemic increases.  This has been helped by word-of-mouth, press coverage and social media spreading the word.   The vacancy rate for shops in Chiswick is now much lower.

But importantly, the market has developed its own vibe on market days.   Who knows, one day Chiswick may be as well known as Portobello, Brick Lane or even Columbia Road!

Ollie Saunders
November 2021

Ollie Saunders, photograph by Charles Campion

All other photographs courtesy of Anna Kunst Photography

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