The retail ‘black swan’

Posted by on Jan 15, 2013 in Activity centres, News | No Comments

Guy Rundle in Crikey on the dramatic decline of High Street Retail in the UK, and his take on implications for Australia.

“But why should the troubles of UK retailers matter to Australians? After all, the US downtown collapsed ages ago and the shockwaves didn’t register. However, there were specific reasons for the US collapse: “white flight” from the cities to the suburbs, high car ownership and huge sweetheart deals with mall developers. The UK High Street should have been more resilient — car ownership is lower, urban density greater, and malls are still the exception rather than the rule.

The fact that it too is dying — and that town centres in places like Italy, with an unparalleled commitment to localism, are in trouble — suggests a brute truth: the High Street in its current form cannot survive anywhere, and there is no point trying to keep it alive in that way. Australia can learn from the mistakes being made elsewhere to prepare for the time when the crunch comes closer to home.”


“Given such an epochal event, we should take it as an opportunity, not an inevitable decline — not merely to refashion urban spaces, but to diminish the centrality of shopping to our lives, not least as preparation for the likely shift we will have to make in the way we live in decades to come. To have every community everywhere defined by having a group of shops at its centre is the triumph of bourgeois civilisation, the expression of life as a matter of buying and selling. Now that it has started to break down, we should take the opportunity to refashion the places we live, more radically. We should simply abandon the idea that the high/main street should be a row of shops, and start to see it as a place of multiple uses.”

Interesting times…..Pracsys has consistently questioned the current planning system’s dominant focus on retail.  We believe this has been a major drag on activity centre maturation and investment, with performance-based outcomes being a much more appropriate basis for decision-making.  I find it hard to imagine smaller activity centres in a post-retail centric world. Larger centres focussed on higher-order population driven activity (like education and healthcare) and agglomerations of strategic activity have the infrastructure to evolve, but the future of mall and main street oriented centres takes imagination and vision.  These centres are critical as they are the community hubs for much of our urban population.

Whilst pontificating on the future of centres in the Pracsys jacuzzi, the questions I often come back to include:

a) Are we planning for centres that are simply too big?

b) Can our planning system deal effectively with future contraction or dramatic changes in use?

I know a performance based approach will help, and that we haven’t hit the top of the retail demand curve locally yet, but the disruption is coming. Interesting times……