Thursday, 29 October 2009

We won't go to Tesco when West Ham win the world cup again! Thoughts on the role of town centres

As ever Julian Dobson provokes thought in his observations of town centres - and saving them. And here - inspired by an earlier piece as well - are a few of those thoughts provked.
In 2005, Susie Pryor and Sanford Grossbart published “Ethnography of an American Main Street” (International Journal of Retail & Distribution Management), reporting on the findings from a long-term field investigation of the main street in an American mid-west town. In discussing their findings the authors suggest dimensions to the characterisation of activities in the main street. These are:

1. Structure – is the activity formal or informal
2. Function – ranging from the purely commercial to the wholly noncommercial
3. Festive – encompassing the commonplace and routine through to highly festive occasions

Main Street is not simply a place of commerce – a shopping centre. Nor is it (as if in some Soviet dream) just a place for formal events and celebrations. It is a place of engagement and co-operation between merchants, consumers and “ancillary actors”. It is alive.

The driver to the success of Main Street isn’t the shop – although to hear us talk about town centres you would think that – it is the relationship we have with that place and the space it provides for the events and activities of our lives. In Bradford, when Pakistan win at cricket, hundred of fans head for the local centres. Not to shop but to share their happiness at victory.

Yet we distrust such a use for the spaces of our town centres. Many of us grumble about public drinking, about young people gathering together, about hen parties and stag dos. And we certainly dislike political campaigns and religious promotion (unless of course it’s an official and state-sanctioned occasion) – to the point of complaining about these activities.

To make town centres work we need to start thinking about them differently:

1. places of performance – planned or otherwise
2. centres of culture not temples to shopping
3. a locus for excitement and discovery rather than the workaday
4. as venues for communal celebration, sharing and festivity

So rather than beating down the door of John Lewis, Selfridges or some other “iconic” store should we not be finding impresarios to programme and create the framework on which the community's events and occasions – large and small – might be hung? After all we won’t go to Tesco to celebrate when West Ham win the world cup again!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Simon ... your post prompted memories of visiting Sabaudia (for my brother's wedding a few years back); a new town built on reclaimed marshes on the coast south of Rome in the early 1930's (under Mussolini's orders). As a functional lively town with a bit of soul and activity it seemed to me to work - but I'm not quite sure why. Not sure if the urban planning literature has much on it that is up to date. Time for a study visit eh?! ... Crispin