Towns, commerce and the future

French towns are withering and losing their core, while shopping centers outside of the cities are booming, as recently described by the New York Times. Meanwhile, in the U.S., the suburbs are going through an equally dramatic transition. Malls are being outcompeted by e-commerce and eventually have to shut down, leading to shrinking demand for chain-restaurants and other services that previously were being frequented by hungry and entertainment-seeking shoppers.

Stories like this could be written about towns in various countries. The creation of shopping clusters outside of city centers and the rise of e-commerce are two global themes that no one will be able to stop. The best way to look at the shift and its negative consequences is therefore with a stoic mindset, following the principle that what you cannot control, you shouldn’t not spend a lot of time trying to control. As long as a city doesn’t force its population to shop at the local stores (which hopefully will never happen), more shops and old school businesses will vanish. The economics and experience of getting things from the giant mall or – increasingly more likely – from the internet, are generally too intriguing for consumers to let the undesirable side effects for the community come in between themselves and the convenient purchase or unbeatable bargain.

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Accepting this opens room for new types of thinking. Particularly, it allows for a mental decoupling of the connection between traditional local commerce and vibrant city life. If the goal is to keep the towns buzzing, and if the diminishing role of oldschool stores is acknowledged as inevitable, then other incentives need to be created to make people spend time in the city centers. As humans are by nature social creatures, the starting point is not too bad – if one lets go of conventional perspectives to allow some unprejudiced brainstorming. It’s not that people only have an interest in being near other people and enjoying the pulse of a town when there is stuff lying around on shelves waiting to be purchased. Consumption is one factor, but not the only one.

Letting go of conventional thinking in this regard means to ignore financial constraints for a moment. If money would not be a problem and if one would start completely from scratch, what types of places could fill the downtown real estate in order to attract people? A few spontaneous ideas aside from regular cafés, bars, restaurants, service providers, brand showrooms and the few ubiquitous retail chains that seem to survive in most places:

  • Co-working spaces (not only for startup workers and freelancers but also for students or self-learners)
  • Venues for creative and art projects
  • VR cafés
  • Maker cafés
  • Physical marketplaces for the “sharing economy” (where people can trade stuff and services)
  • Cultural meeting spots for all kinds of interest groups
  • Dedicated meeting spots for groups of friends (as are common in some parts of Spain)
  • Places where parents can go with their kids to play and to socialize, in addition to the traditional playgrounds
  • Facilities to learn new skills

I’m sure if one would ask 100 people, there would be at least 20 more ideas. Of course many of these described facilities already do exist in today’s cities and towns, but often at a small scale due to the lack of affordable real estate.

It’s apparent that when looking at that list, it all comes down to money. It seems unlikely to have these venues pay for themselves. At least if the goal is to bring as many people as possible into the towns, then basic access to the public should be as close to free as possible. So cities would have to find other ways to tap funding. Libertarians and conservatives always hate the thought of an additional tax, but I can imagine that residents in some European towns would be willing to contribute in some way to the revitalization of their towns. Where there is a will, there is way, especially if it creates many new work opportunities and increases the overall life quality. The biggest obstacle apart from ideology is the legacy mental model of city life powered by profit-oriented retail. If profit-oriented retail largely disappears from towns, but representatives of local governments and residents don’t want having to wander through decayed ghost towns, there are alternatives. What’s no option anymore though is to hope that e-commerce will blow over.

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Photo: Flickr/Orange County Archives, CC BY 2.0

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