When the chains go marching in

A guest article from Julie Holck

In order to understand cities properly, we have to look at them through retail. Retail and urban life have always been two sides of the same coin and although shops alone cannot create a city, retail is a crucial part of urban life. Thousands of cities have been founded on market places and retail has been one of the most powerful drivers in the development of civilisation.

Shops attract people and thereby life – without customers they wouldn’t exist – but they do it in different ways. According to their size, location, structure, values and aesthetics, stores create different kinds of life and different kinds of cities. Shops are ‘mini worlds’, potentially framing experiences, enchantment, surprises and dialogue. Everyday conversations between retailers and customers can create confidence between people and establish a kind of local pride as well as a sense of place.

But shops can also do the opposite, providing homogeneity, boredom and unattractiveness. They can destroy the inner urban structures and suck the life out of the city streets.

Being aware of the consequences of shops is essential when dealing with urban planning on any scale. If we want not only liveable but also lovable cities we need a life generating retail structure and a counter strategy to today’s challenges – which involve the closure of more and more individual stores, the increasing number of chain stores and the growth in store scale.

The concrete situation is that we see more and more towns with very few or no shops at all. When the last grocery shop closes down, so does the town.

Every year 2000 individual food stores go out of business in the UK and the same goes for a number of other Western countries. When that happens, the city loses a little bit of its character. And every time a shop closes we lose a destination in the city. Eventually we lose reasons to go out and thereby we lose people and life in the streets.

While the individual shops go out of business, the chain stores continue to go in. Chain stores look the same everywhere (that’s kind of the point!), but it’s not necessarily a pretty sight – at least it’s not a very interesting sight, as you’ve probably seen it all before. The result, in the end, is that we can hardly distinguish one high street from the other. When the chain stores go marching in, those qualities of chance, the unpredictable and the unusual, which has always given cities their renewable, variable, cosmopolitan, living character, is lost.

Parallel to this we can observe how shopping centers still attract loads of customers. Shopping centres are comfortable and predictable and protect us from bad weather and other inconveniences of the real world (such as beggars, activists, litter and traffic). But although they do attract a lot of customers, who might also sneak out to do some shopping in the streets, aesthetically their contribution to the living city is rather small. Turning their back to the city, they only show the passer-by their huge, enclosed facades. Looked upon as identity makers and street life generators, shopping centres (and chain stores) don’t score very highly. No matter how spectacular the design, they just don’t provide a feeling of place.

Cities (especially in Northern Europe) have been craving for identity for decades. Every city wants to be unique and those who can afford it build beautiful museums and expensive apartments. And that’s fine, but it’s not enough. It’s not the museums that create the everyday buzz of the city; shops do that.

Shops provide an important social and sensuous space and in order to create a living city, it’s crucial to nurse and encourage a unique retail environment with a certain amount of smaller, individual stores. The right shops in the right location function as strong place makers for cities that are or want to be: ALIVE.

Case studies: Jaegersborggade and Vaernedamsvej, Copenhagen

Jaegersborggade Farmers Market from oproerframaven.dk

In Copenhagen a street called Jaegersborggade has changed dramatically within the last 10 years, thanks to the residents’ retail initiatives. From being a gloomy and unattractive place, the home of a motorcycle gang, the street is now a hip and rather unique shopping and leisure destination with small designer shops, famous chefs’ restaurants and a weekly organic market. The residents decided to rent out – to a low rent – all the ground floor/basement spaces to unique shops and eateries and the result is clear today. Jaegersborggade has become a very attractive street and lively, especially on Saturdays. The board of the housing cooperatives is in charge of the renting procedures and decides who to host.

Vaernedamsvej by Normann-Foto.com

In another street, Vaernedamsvej (200 m.), known as Copenhagen’s “little Paris” (very little!) we find 46 different shops/eateries and only 6 of them are part of a chain. There is a special relation between the owners here, and the street makes up a small local community in the middle of the big city. The long history of the street as a shopping street but also the small spaces may be part of the answer to why this is so. There is no formal programme for the street but it has, somehow, found an order of its own, thanks to the social relations and the agreed upon aim of creating/maintaining a special atmosphere with unique shops, focusing on food and fashion.

Low rents, small spaces (rooms), some kind of substance/image consensus and a certain degree of self-determination seem to be constructive in the creation of lively and attractive (shopping) streets.

Julie Holck is a retail consultant for Gehl Architects and has recently completed a PhD on the relationship between cities and retail. Her dissertation, ‘The Shops and the Living Cities’ focuses on how shops contribute to living cities, including reflections on the definition of ‘a living city’, why they are important to us – both socially, culturally and economically – and how we can create alternative and sustainable urban shopping environments.

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