Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Role reversal

In a previous world I was an urban designer. I know and I apologise, although actually some of what we worked on was good. Some of it was however too radical for conservative clients, both public and private.

Nearly forty years later, the world has now moved on. The idea of retail parks in edge of or out of town locations - closely followed by new business centres alongside - and then the explosion in online shopping, means town centre shopping is now more or less irrelevant. Niche destinations remain viable either because the destination is attractive in itself or because they offer small specialist and unique services. 

The small town 'shopping centre' built in the 60's and 70's has by and large had its day. Nobody wants them and fewer and fewer go there. All across the country there are towns and cities desperately trying to reverse the tide.  Funding and re-branding ain't going to fix this. As one of my colleagues memorably advised one of the regeneration agencies we were working for way back then, "it's like a dog chasing a motorcycle - it wouldn't know what to do with it if it caught it". History suggests there is some truth in this - sadly the country is littered with regeneration schemes that didn't actually fail but just spluttered and subsided back from whence they came.

The answer is to change the way we see these unloved towns. Nobody wants to shop there so we need to reverse things - live there. Convert the unloved shops to residential and community use, maybe put care facilities in the centre so those in need don't depend so much on others to take them there. It's worth remembering this is not rocket science; historically it was done the other way round with housing being displaced for retail. 

Towns are increasingly like Polo mints - with a hole in the middle. Instead of building further and further out making a bigger and bigger hole we need to abandon our perception of 'town centres'. In many cases they already simply don't exist. We need human scale development to live in at the centre with the other stuff round the edge. The latter part has already happened but so far we've failed to act on the consequences of this.

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