The role of retail in suburban town centres

February 24, 2007

The discussion in the advisory group meeting which was referred to in Laura’s posting highlighted the focus on retail in the perceptions of the town centre and in policy interventions.

Personally, I’m starting to be suspicious about this focus. It might be that it causes a tunnel vision within the management and policy circles in terms of understanding the places that we call ‘town centres’. I would suggest that retail is a major part of the story, but without letting it obfuscate the full complexity of these places. I did liked Nick Falk suggestions that ‘successful town centres are places that encourage encounters’ – that they are vibrant in terms of the local society and the local functions that they provide.

Although I’m cautious about the following assertion, and I would like to examine how this is reflected in the literature, my initial reading of the discussions on town centres and the current policies on them are a mix of rational reasoning and sentimentality or nostalgia. The rational part is that a liveable centre reduces congestion, encourages local employment, provides a better quality of life etc. The sentimental is in the way in which the town centre is seen as an ‘endangered species’ ‘under threat’, in a constant need for a ‘health check’ and also to be conserved in a specific form (for example, with a lot of local small retailers). The management of these places is geared towards ‘preserving’ them as centre of retail activity of a certain form.

I would suggest to view the retail element of the high street is part of a process of how we shop. It started with markets. In England, the 18th century was the period when covered markets started to appear. This was followed by shopping arcades in the 19th century and the street shops that became integral part of the suburbs emerged in the late 19th century and into the 20th. These places had their golden era probably after WW II – as described in Barker’s non-plan revisited paper. By the 70th, the retail started to change with supermarkets and the emergence of shopping centres: first locally, and then out-of-town ones. The next change is already around with E-Commerce which is now estimated at 15% of retail turnover, and although some of it is replacing mail order shopping, this is significant and likely to continue to grow – see Sam’s comment on HMV financial results this year.

This view is that the high street is a chapter in this evolution, and for some reason it was decided that it represents the ‘proper’ state of retail and shopping, and therefore should be preserved.

Viewed this way, the town centre, especially those that were built in the first part of the 20th century, went through tremendous environmental change – not in the sense of climate change, although this need to be taken into account in the future, but in the sense of the economic and social system in which they are embedded. During their existence they must have gone through several economic cycles, changes from industrial to service economy patterns, changes in women involvement in the workforce and changes in car ownership and travel (see this article about it). Of these changes, it is important to appreciate how much retail itself changed and continue to do so.

The town centres that we see active today must have succeeded through adapting to the changes – capable to weather the changes that are happening around them in the economy and society. There is an element of sentimentality that can be identified in the wish to keep the town centres in the form and function that they had in the middle of the previous century. This seems to be the reason for the emphasis on retail as the core driving force for the viability of the town centre, because the analysis is that retail was the main driving force in the past.

If we recast the question to ‘what are the factors that allowed town centres to adapt to the changes?’ maybe it is the characteristic of the social and economic activity in the area, and the nature of the built environment of these places that allowed them to adapt and not only the retail element.

On a very small scale, this is similar Barker’s discussion of the suburban semi-detached house. In his paper, he gives a very good account about how successful it is in its ability to adapt to different demands, from accepting higher number of cars to getting satellite dishes. They are still successful and ‘sought after’. They are the houses where most people in Britain want to live in – a clear measure of success.Semi-detached (source Flickr dgeezer)

Therefore, our concept of ‘success’ for a town centre at this stage is, maybe, a very simple one. The fact that the town centre is active is a sign of success.

I would suggest that something similar to the suburban house is going on with the town centres that we are looking at. The town centres that remained significant and active over the years are the ones that manage to find and adapt to new functionality over time. Maybe the issue of retail is that it is in a feedback mechanism – there are attractions in the high street for people to go there, from public services to offices to light industry. These provide the footfall for retail and increase the attractiveness of the high street and so on. A thought experiment about the pure attraction of retail can be taken from the fact that out-of-town shopping centres are getting very big in order to create the required attraction, so retail alone is probably not enough.

Note that this line of argument is not calling for no management of the town centre. It is around what are the measures that are used to judge a successful one and what are the targets for its management. If it is the ‘other functions’ of the town centres that are more important for its adaptability than serving as an environment for retail, than we need to nurture these places in order to make them exciting places for local encounters and employment, and not focus so strongly on retail.

Maybe this point of view will help us to focus on sociability, accessibility, socio-economic drivers for activity (places of work etc.) and then, and only then, on the economics that create the environment for the retail. It might be worth exploring ideas that are contrary to the ‘conventional wisdom – this is after all our remit.

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