Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Offering folk stuff to buy isn't enough for a place to work - you have to entertain them too!

Retailing as entertainment
The long-term transformative effects of ICT cannot yet be fully appraised in part because technology uptake is rapid and unpredictable. Nevertheless, in one aspect – urban design – a synergy has emerged between bricks-and-mortar merchants and planners, in reaction to virtualization. Their complementary efforts, when successful, imbue commercial space with interaction-based vitality. The human instinct for sociability further supports these efforts, evidence that there is no substitute for many of the benefits cities offer. Lives are arguably better in proximity, a point supported by decades of agglomeration and anthropological research. The challenge for planners, therefore, is to create space for meaningful experiences inimitable in the virtual realm.

OK it's a little bit wordy (as we'd expect from an American academic) but the point being made is central to the business of regeneration and the future direction of 'place-making'. The critical issue is that the 'field of dreams' approach that tended to dominate town centre development no longer applies - just because I build a shopping centre doesn't guarantee that people will flock to its hallowed halls. If all I offer is stuff to buy, the consumer has the choice of sitting on her step with a smartphone flipping through a vaster and more exciting range of stuff to buy.

Pay a visit to a recently developed shopping mall - say the Trinity in Leeds, for example - and check out the shopping. Isn't the most striking thing just how little of this there actually is in the new mall? There are dozens of places to eat and drink, there's a cinema, and there are shops - run by brands like Apple, Bose and Superdry - that are as much as branding and market positioning as they are about actually selling you stuff. We were in the Bose shop getting a demonstration of their TV (unsurprisingly the sound quality was beyond awesome although this didn't make up for its lack of smartness) and, in chatting to the sales assistant, we discovered that she wasn't incentivised to sell us stuff. No commission, no sales bonus - because the shop was there to promote and position the Bose brand.

If we want places to succeed then there has to be a reason for people to visit them - if what they offer can be perfectly replicated on-line (or, in some cases, imperfectly) then the chances are that people will access the offer through the web rather than by visiting some place. What places need to do is threefold.

1. Offer those things - chiefly around 'human sociability' - that can't be done on-line (even if they can). 'Live' music is only really live music if you're there - yes someone could stream it live to the smart TV in your lounge but is that the same? I would argue it isn't - we want the live because of the whole experience, the beer, the slight crush of the crowded venue, the sense of sharing a great experience with others. The ability to say 'I was there'. Just having a bar or foodstop isn't good enough - it needs a purpose beyond that mundane fact, a presence that can't be replicated with a bottle of wine from the supermarket and some home cooking.

2. Connect with the on-line world. We went to the Prado in Madrid and, unplanned, bought an offer to guide us round from a smartly dressed gentleman. He showed us 10 - just ten - pictures from the thousands in the gallery. And these pictures taking us from the middle ages to the 21st century told us a story of art down those ages. We could have hired one of those clunky electronic gadgets as a guide but wouldn't it be more interesting if a little smartphone app could replicate the sort of offer that gentleman made for us?

3. Focus on the occasion, the event and the demonstration rather than just the sale. It's true that the value of the place comes in part from the value that consumers invest in that place - and much of this is, inevitably, a cash value. But, as Apple, Bose and many other brands have shown, the value of a public presence needn't be about selling you some stuff. Rather it's about showing you what that stuff can do, reminding you that the stuff in question is popular (why else would there be a big shop fill with other people looking at that stuff), and reinforcing your decision to buy it.

I'm quite excited about the future for town centres, malls and other shared places. Partly this is because the domination of public space by retail is nearing its end but mostly it's because the evidence right now is that successful places are places where the special stuff - the things that make them work - are made by the people visiting rather than for the people visiting. A new generation of entrepreneurs are creating new approaches to public fun and games - from political debates in a pub to cheese tasting and street parties.

And where there are lots of people having a good time there's the opportunity to enhance that good time by selling them the stuff they want (even if they didn't know they wanted it until just a minute of so ago). For public authorities there's a difficulty because of an instinctive discomfort with things that disrupt existing markets and existing expectations. Excuses will be used to prevent or slow the initiative of these new ideas - the street vendor or market stall undercuts the shopkeeper, selling alcohol in the street encourages anti-social behaviour and your funky flea market needs a "markets licence" for some bizarre reason.

What we know is that many of the best examples of this new place-making reflect this development. I prefer to call this consumer-led but, if you're uncomfortable with the idea of being a consumer, citizen-led works just as well:

Authentic urban transformation relies more on citizen initiative than the influence of global capital, and may be facilitated by ICT but not defined by it; this can be seen in the quiet regeneration of urban neighborhoods. Global capital may underwrite loans for acquiring properties and developing land, decisions in such neighborhoods are often made locally and in the type of fragmented manner that generates a bricolage of uses and styles. Examples in the United States include East Nashville, Kansas City’s Crossroads district, and Oakland’s foodie Temescal and KoNo districts. None displays the architectural shock-and-awe of emerging global mega-cities, but each embodies a citizen-level developmental determinism that shapes their design and atmosphere. They are literal incarnations of the unique priorities of citizens at that time and place, independent of global trends that often result in regression to an aesthetic mean.


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