Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Watching my town centre slowly die.......

I have just returned from a stroll round my town centre and noticed that yet another shop has announced it is closing - four weeks before Christmas, a trendy men's cothes shop, nice position on a corner site, in a pedestrianised street. It seems to have had everything going for it - though there are three similar shops within 50 yards, including a branch of 'Jules'. What is going wrong?

My home town is typical of a hundred similar French towns - 120,00 population plus a further 100,000 or if you count the outlying suburbs. There is an excellent bus service, with fares at just 1.20 euros, plus the '1 euro bus' with a subsidised fare to nearby villages. There is plenty of public on-street parking - 1 euro will buy you two hours, plus private underground and five to six storey parking - all less than 5 minutes wak away.

The town offers all the services needed by the regional population - schools, a university, a large hospital and several clinics, a range of supporting medical services (I can count at lease five centres offering routine blood tests), specialist doctors, legal services, the court of justice, cinemas, concert halls, a huge theatre complex etc. There are daily open-air markets and a huge covered complex opening in 2017.

And yet it is dying as a commercial centre. There are some streets where at least half the shops are closed and boarded up, Sundays are totally dead on Sundays outside the summer season, yet the town offers several museums, art galleries and carefully signposted historic churches and monuments. Mondays (where many shops remain closed) and Tuesdays are quite, there is some activity on Wednesday afternoon which is the scholl and college half day (spent by the kids roaming round the town centre) while Thursday and Fridays are slight more lively, and Saturday the main shopping day.

While the chamber of commerce and many small business owners wring their hands when talking about the decline, the town and regional councils insist on developing massive out-of-town shopping centres - one north and another south of the city. Although accessible by bus they are largely dependant on people arriving by car for the weekly 'big shop'. The centres are built around one or more well known hypermarkets, and  there are typically household and furniture shops, DIY hangers and electrics and electronics supermarkets. As well as the catering facilities neeeded to feed the host of hungy shoppers (though the town centre is still favoured for evening meals.

The practical result is as I describe - the slow and painful death of the town centre......What are the possible remedies?

According to American town planning expert Jane Jacobs*, for a cirty or district to survive and remain attractive there are basically four essential requirements:

- A sufficiently large mix of people including residents, workers and visitors who generate 'traffic' at different times of the day - early morning arrivals (for example, for work), residents who spread their presence over other times of the day (mid-morning or afternoon) and visitors (not just tourists but people from outside the area who are there for another purpose - a business meeting, to visit the local library, a doctor's appointment etc).

- The area must be easy to get around on foot. Office workers, for example, with a one hour lunch break do not wanter to walk more than five or ten minutes to grab a quick lunch or take-away snack, to do some essential shopping etc.

- The district must include a sufficiently wide variety of activities - not just office blocks but services such as a library, shops, restaurants, repair services - and if it is to remain alive in the evening, entertainment.

- There must be sufficient numbers of people at all times of days who are seeking and using these services.

Examples where these precepts fail are the City of London or virtually any major financial centre which is 'closed' for the weekend.  Or a purpose built cultural centre such as London's South Bank, an unattractive concrete wilderness ideally sited on the river Thames but difficult to access - compared with Covent Garden when the wholesale market moved out, but older buildings were preserved, business's created, and added to the existing theatres, the area developed naturally and is a success.

Even in the deep south of France more shops are now staying open over lunchtime when before they too shut between noon and 2.00 pm but as in the case of my own town many still cannot generate sufficient traffic to stay in business. Residents also have drifted to the edge of town and the suburbs for the reasons noted above, and gradually the city centre has declined.

*'The death and life of great American cities' Jane Jacobs, Random House, New York, 1961 plus other more recent titles, available on Amazon.