Narborough Road: a world in one street (yeah, and…?)

by Anna Turner, Insight Director and Rui Mendes, Client Director

This month’s Get Out There comes to you from Narborough Road, Leicester.

As a road, Narborough Road is not remarkable. It’s one of the main roads leading into the centre of Leicester from the motorway. But in 2016, this road was crowned the UK’s Most Multi-Cultural High Street by an LSE study.

Like London, Leicester is a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural melting pot, just on a slightly smaller scale. 34% of Leicester’s population were born outside of the UK (28% born outside the EU) and half of them came to the country since 2001. 37% of Leicester’s population is Asian/Asian British and it’s religious make up is similarly diverse (32% Christian, 19% Muslim, 15% Hindu and 4% Sikh).

The LSE study, conducted in 2015/2016, painted a positive picture of Narborough Road’s diverse communities co-existing and working together in harmony. However, since the EU referendum in June 2016, the general media narrative has shifted — suddenly Britain doesn’t seem like the friendliest of places for ‘foreigners’ or multi-ethnic communities.

We wanted to follow up on the study and talk to business owners and shoppers on the street to see what it was that was special about Narborough Road; what being the ‘most diverse street’ meant to them; and see what (if anything) had changed over the last 2 years.

Here’s what we discovered:

Firstly, in a challenging and difficult retail climate where statements like ‘death of the High Street’ are commonly used, Narborough Road seems to be bucking the trend. It is busy and full of shops. Unlike most high streets in the UK (and even Leicester city centre itself), we saw no vacant shops as we walked up and down the street and the business owners we spoke to seemed to be content. Maybe the fact that almost every shop along the street is an independent business, with its’ own niche offering was what worked the best. It wasn’t a faceless high street with the same shops as the neighbouring high street or shopping centre. When asked what they felt were the biggest issues they and the street were facing, we didn’t hear many concerns… A bit about alcohol fuelled anti-social behaviour at night but nothing about soaring rents/rates and very little about online shopping ruining their businesses. Of course, business is tough, and none of the business owners could take things for granted, but they all had their niche. They felt rents were fair (much cheaper than the centre of town) and the busy road was bursting with life and most importantly, potential customers.

Secondly, which came first, the chicken or the egg? — was it the diverse local community that attracted the mix of businesses to Narborough Road, or did the diverse mix of businesses on Narborough Road attract the different ethnic communities? The road reflects the diversity of the surrounding population (and of the city’s population). The area around Narborough Road is popular with immigrant communities — the positioning of the area near the centre of town, with good transport links and relatively affordable rents makes the area attractive as a place to live. And equally, Narborough Road is attractive as a business environment too with its proximity to the centre, its position as a busy thoroughfare, with plenty of passing trade and a residential community around it, providing local shoppers too. Maybe they both attract each other.

Thirdly, in a place full of diversity, everyone is different, so no one feels different. There is no one dominant community on Narborough Road, yes there are a number of Eastern European businesses and Asian businesses but it’s not little Poland or Little India, it’s a huge mix of everything. People from all countries and all cultures, living and working side by side. The different mini-communities don’t necessarily mix much with each other but they happily and respectfully co-exist side by side. In this environment, there are so many differences that being different is the norm, it’s not noticed and everyone blends in together.

And finally, Diversity is a given. It’s the way it is. No big deal. Many of the people we spoke to had read the newspaper articles about Narborough Road being the most diverse street in the UK (it was even up on the wall until last month in one of the cafes we visited) and almost everyone knew about it. EVERYONE agreed that as a street (and area) it was incredibly diverse — ‘a world in one street’, a street full of choice, difference and interest. And they were proud of it. But they were nonchalant too. For them it was just part of everyday life. Without question it’s what made the street special. The fact that ‘you could try food from almost every country or culture around the world in one road’, that ‘you could have a meal from a different country every night of the week’, that you could buy specialist products from all over the world from Asian spices to Polish pastries, from Halal Meat to African Hair Relaxer treatments, that ‘you meet people from everywhere’, that you learn about different cultures and traditions. But, it was so much part of the fabric of everyday life, that people don’t really think about it. It’s not seen as something special, it’s just the way it is.