Reimagining the city centre: a future without retail?

The city centre plays a fundamental role in enabling exchange and interaction. It is the site of exchange not only of goods and services but also information and ideas, a place where work interacts with leisure and play, and where people’s lives intersect. It is literally the beating heart of the city. And for much of the last hundred years the city centre has traditionally been the centre of retail, the place where citizens (and increasingly visitors) could purchase a more diverse range of products than would be found on their local ‘high street’.

But that role has been under immense and sustained pressure as new ways of conducting retail have eroded the functions of the city centre: the construction of large out of town shopping centre and mall serviced by increasing car ownership, the rise of catalogue and personal shopping encouraging those able to afford it to have deliveries to the home, and in last few decades the rapid growth of online retailing. Each has in turn disrupted the competitive advantage of the city centre as a retail hub and today more than ever has challenged its very existence.

This week’s series of articles in the Herald Scotland newspaper, to which the Institute for Future Cities has contributed, picks up some of these dimensions in relation to Glasgow. It is a city which over the last thirty years has used retail to re-position itself globally and to help in its economic regeneration. The question raised in this series of articles is what is the future for retailing in the city centre? But arguably this need to be placed within a much larger question. What would a city centre look like without (significant amounts of) retail?

The Institute for Future Cities is embarking on a 2 year AHRC funded research project to explore the future of cities centres around the world, looking not only at retail but the other changes which are occurring in city centres. Alongside partners at the Universities of Northumbria (UK), Newcastle (Australia), Pretoria (South Africa), and Paraiba (Brazil), the project will explore how to understand the changes in – and pressures on – city centres across the globe.

Dr Robert Rogerson, depute Director of the Institute and project lead at Strathclyde University says:  “This international project seeks to learn from the experiences of city centres around the world. But it is also looking beyond individual cities to identify visions of the future of the city centre as a geographical and functioning entity. It will be asking: who is it for? What is it for? Where does the future lie? How can its future be guided?”

The project aims to lead to the formation of a new international network to help advance answers to these and emerging research questions.