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Re-Imagining not Re-Imaging: Time for a New Look at Town Centres

The British High Street is in big trouble. Recently we saw the collapse of House of Fraser, Marks and Spencer’s is struggling and this is part of an on-going process that has seen shop closures on an unprecedented scale. As Andrew Carter (Centre for Cities) wrote recently many town centres are characterised by “the all-too-familiar array of pound shops, bookies and boarded-up vacant lots.” Passing trade is at its lowest since 2010, down nearly 9%.

Shop Closures Earlsdon High Street (Ian Halsey Creative commons)


Where has the trade gone? As we all know it’s gone online. Now we can get into a debate about why, and whether this competition is fair or not but I think it misses the point.

The idea of the town centre as a retail hub has gone unquestioned for too long. The assumption seems to be that town centres are only suitable for retailing with a bit of commercial office space on the side. So as shops have closed the knee jerk reaction has been to try to attract new or different shops in to take their place.

But is this view now out of date? Does it really matter if shops close? Should we be thinking not about expensive makeovers for our town centres but re-imagining our town centres?

So, the argument goes...

  1. That towns and cities should reduce their reliance on retail, and instead focus on creating a better environment for other firms for example firms in sectors such as ICT, legal services, insurance and marketing which are likely to create more jobs in the long run
  2. This means reducing the reliance on shops, and focusing on creating a more attractive environment for a wider range of firms. We also need to make our high streets more open and appealing spaces for people to spend time or live in, by improving public realm and transport links, and potentially introducing more housing.” (Report Centre for Cities)

At present the retail industry is trying to stem the tide of change but its long stranglehold on land use in town centres may be coming to a close, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. We should be thinking in terms of opportunities not threats.

Interestingly this will also affect the teaching of urban geography. For how much longer will land use models and bid rent theory be used to explain patterns of land use in towns and cities, if indeed, they ever did? And what will we put in its place that better reflects the way towns really are rather than some abstract pattern that is rarely repeated in the real world.

By Phil Brighty

Former Geography Teacher

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