If some of the traditional functions of town centres, like shopping and office blocks, are shrinking due to technology and economic changes, can they still have a purpose? The UK has more retail space than it needs; the nature of retail is changing fundamentally as an increasing percentage of business is done online; and the debt-fuelled rise in personal disposable income has ground to a halt.Those problems are not, of course, limited to the UK.
In smaller towns and neighbourhood shopping centres, stores are continuing to close. Nostalgia and middle-class spending power won’t save our town centres. We need to acknowledge that there are other reasons, more relevant to the 21st century, for town centres.
Town centres need to be promoted as places to live for a wide mix of people. A learning town centre which might combine formal learning by universities and colleges with spaces for informal learning and exchanges of skills. A greener town centre with interests in local growing projects is something that has risen in popularity as consumers become more aware of the waste associated with global food distribution systems, and additionally, climate change is likely to increase the need for local food resources and for the relearning of gardening skills.
A creative town centre, where Creative activities will draw people into urban spaces, generating interaction and business opportunities. Many such activities need temporary, flexible space rather than permanent buildings. The key to a successful centre is not the buildings or the retail offer; it is the people. People attract other people. Town centres that support networking and creativity make good business sense.
Town centres need to be planned for shifting modes of transport, flexible public spaces, and changes of use that are likely to become more frequent than the planning system currently allows.