The State Of Our Town Centres Architecture Essay


There is growing concern about the state of our town centres. Traditionally, town centres have been the heart, even the apotheosis, of our urban civilization, where a multitude of commercial, retail, cultural and governmental activities and functions are uniquely concentrated. Recently however, a series of powerful economic, demographic, social and cultural trends have cast doubt upon their pivotal role. Competition from out-of-town shopping centres, unsafe streets, the closure of long established shops in our high streets and their replacement by cheap discount stores have resulted in a loss of identity and appeal. Many wonder whether town centres face terminal decline.

This book reviews recent events in town centres and raises some basic questions:

  • what have been the main components of physical change?
  • what have been the main effects of such trends upon the attractiveness of town centres.
  • what has been the relative significance of institutional factors and public policy?
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The introductory chapter describes the genesis and evolution of british town centres. Chapters examine the main components of physical change focusing on retailing, transport, offices and the public realm. Chapter access the significance and impact of broad shifts in public policy-making over the last 30 years. The final chapter is , it also counsels that further reform will be necessary if they are to have a viable future.

Defining town centres

What are the defining characteristics of town centres and how did they come out? This chapter tackles some basic definitional questions in order to provide a set of compass directions for the remainder of the essay.

Defining town centres

Different perspectives upon the nature of town centres are a reflection of the concerns and motives of particular academic and professional disciplines. Practitioners have adopted physical and mechanistic modes of explanation to explore relationships between land use and transportation systems and distinguish the status of different centres and their constituent functions.

theorists on the other hand have focused more on underlying processes and the institutional power relations shaping the built environment in central locations.

Analysis of physical composition. The most straightforward approach to defining town centres has focused on their mix of land uses, morphological character and modality. Geographers and town planners have traditionally sought to define town centres as discrete areas containing higher-order commercial and retail functions which congregate to exploit their accessibility and other agglomeration advantages. However, such methods are now widely recognized as narrow, excessively physical and lacking in theoretical justification and explanatory power.

Economic theory. Theories of urban land economics offer a more convincing and logical explanation of the distribution of retail and service activities both within and between town centres. Christaller(1966) maintained that towns initially owed their existence to their centrality, in other words their ability to serve surrounding rural areas by providing a range of goods and services.

Centres of public social life. Many commentators have placed greater emphasis upon the cultural significance of town centres although some of their arguments do relate to the most materialist conceptions. Lynch view prominent landmarks may be an important means of personal orientation and self-definition(1960). Demolition of such features often arouses strong feelings and an acute and enduring sense of personal and collective loss.

Others take the view that town centres a key part of the public domain because they contain a concentration of public cultural assets such as libraries, museums, art galleries, public cultural and open spaces which are also the scene of festivals and street events(bianchini, 1990).

Institutional analysis.

The birth and evolution of town centres

British towns have never had a single focal point, even when they were comparatively small. Many European towns of medieval origin contain central squares, places and piazzas, often fronted by important buildings such as town halls, churches and arts and cultural venues. However, in medieval English towns, seats of government and administration, other civic buildings, religious and commercial functions were likely to be some distance apart. The multi-nodal character of british town centres also stems from the face that markets were held in a variety of locations and not in central aquares as was typical on the continent. They were staged along streets in most medieval towns. This meant that the commercial activities were physically removed from civic, cultural and religious activities.

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The physical separation of functions should not be overemphasized. Compared with modern town centres, the core of medieval English towns incorporated a rich mix of uses. This remained the case, despite subsequent expansion until the late nineteenth century. They contained all the key civic functions, places of worship, cultural uses, commercial functions and most other forms of business. The main reasons for this mix of functions were convenience and safety. Centres of towns and cities provided a focal point for the exchange of goods and produce and maximum accessibility for its population. The main point about the concentrated, multi-functional character of central areas until the nineteenth century was that it bred a sense of solidarity, mutual interest and common endeavour despite the fundamental injustices of the feudal system.

The domination of town centres by retail and commercial functions is a comparatively recent phenomenon. Successive developments in transport and telecommunication had a dramatic impact on the appearance and composition of the high street. The growing commercial significance of town centres had beneficial architectural consequences for town centres.

Increasing demand for commercial space coupled with developments in public transport, particularly trams and the railways, led to the progressive depopulation of densely inhabited town centres. The advent of the railways, trams and then the automobile enabled the place of residence to be increasingly divorced from location of work. Moving out to the suburbs became a popular means of escaping pollution, congestion and the expansion of public institutions, however, forced poorer groups into adjancent, increasingly crowed inner areas until they were rescued by mass slum clearance programmes from the 1950s.

The role of modern town centres

Their functional character has narrowed and their appearance has become increasingly similar due to increased external control of their assets. They have also come under sustained pressure from continuing decentralization and competition from new centres. None the less, they retain a variety of functions and have developed new indigenous strengths. There are three grounds for believing that many town centres could have a viable future and not prove to be dinosaurs.

Town centres still possess traditional economic strengths such as accessibility and an ability to draw upon a large pool of labour. Growth in tourism, and urban heritage has also opened up new opportunities for man town centres. Despite commercial pressures, town and city centres have the potential to perform a vital social and psychological role. They remain the focus of public events, festivals and most important civic spaces and buildings.

The Retail revolution

Retailing has recently proved the most dynamic and most important town centre activity. Although town centres contain a variety of facilities and functions, most people go to town to shop. But, the growth of new forms of retail investment in out-of-town locations has brought many town centres under increasing pressure and raised concern about their future. It tackles a series of questions.

Until the mid-1960s, the distribution of retail activity was relatively stable. It assumed a hierarchical form ranging from local centres selling daily groceries and other convenience items to regional centres offering the entire range of goods. Most shops were concentrated within the most accessible central areas of towns. Customers tended to travel to shops on foot or by public transport.

The dominance of town centre tetailing has increasingly been challenged by the development of new free-standing retail facilities in more peripheral locations. Free-standing supermarkets or hypermarkets were developed, enabling more infrequent, bulk-buy shopping. Town centre congestion and land prices coupled with the size of such developments meant that stores were usually located on cheaper, more spacious, edge of town sites. Warehouses selling bulky goods such as furniture, carpets and DIY, rapidly developed into better designed retail parks with leisure facilities and fast food restaurants. Again, these were located mainly in peripheral areas close to existing food stores and on prominent, accessible sites, adjacent to ting toads and motorways. ( schiller,1986)

The rapid changing face of retailing, shifts in consumer behavior and the legacy of inconsistent and narrow retail policies pose immense challenges to authorities governing town centres, the flight of activity out of town and the polarisation of town centre retail property markets reflect societal trends such as disengagement of the wealthy from core areas and growing inequality. All these factors cast doubt on the viability of town centres.


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Town centres lie at the heart of extensive transportation networks which have always been their lifeblood. Commercial, retail and administrative functions have congregated in core locations because such systems offer easy access to a substantial urban and sub-regional population. Yet the economic and social well being of town centres is critically dependent upon the ability of residents and visitors to move around freely, cheaply, and in comfort without imposing heavy social and environmental costs on others. it is increasingly difficult to reconcile the continuing demands for access to and from homes, workplaces, shops, leisure and social facilities of an increasingly car oriented society with urban quality of life. Paradoxically, alternative more environmentally benign modes, such as public transport and cycling, have declined in importance. Traffic congestion problems are the most frequently cited disadvantage of urban living in Britain and have become progressively more serious in town centres over the last 30 years (NEDO, 1988; Jones, 1991; Civic Trust, 1991). Many wish to move out of cities for this reason, although, ironically, this would add to overall traffic volumes.

'cars come gift wrapped in sex, freedom, potency, money, glamour and individualism' (Sawyer, 1994). But they are ruining our towns. The personal benefits of car ownership such as convenience, flexibility and access are heavily offset by community costs, especially in town centres. Cars have consumed scarce and valuable central urban space in an alarming, unsustainable fashion. Town centres have been particularly vulnerable to growth in traffic and car ownership. The principal difficulty is lack of space. Congestion has led to the wider commercial decline of town centres. City centre employers have become increasingly reluctant to bear the consequences of traffic congestion and have decentralised their operations. This may ultimately generate additional travel demand. The social damage caused by increased car usage is serious. As traffic volumes have grown, more space has been given to roads and car parks, especially in inner residential neighbourhoods( Appleyard, 1981). The loss of housing, local shops, social facilities and open space because of highway construction, as well as parent's worries about busy roads, have led to decentralisation of population and jobs and increased car dependency.

Replacement of areas of mixed use with mono-functional land use zones produced dead environments outside opening hours. These has been proved socially undesirable and inefficient in terms of energy consumption. Overzealous clearance and replacement of traditional terraced housing with council flats and marionettes re-emphasised the depopulation of inner areas. Reduce the amount and length of car

Encourage wide mix of uses in such locations might prove a more environmentally sustainable course of action.

There were many cities of a rigid zoning approach. Jacobs(1961) argued that a great part of the success of neighbourhoods depended on the overlapping and interweaving of activities and areas. More recently, leon Krier (1984) criticized the 'over-concentration' of single uses. "the principal modern building types and planning models such as the skyscraper, the ground scraper, the central business district the commericial strip, the office park, the residential suburb, etc. are invariably horizontal or vertical over-concentrations of single uses in one urban zone, in one building programme, or under one roof"(Krier,1984). Krier contrasts this with the "good city" in which "the totality of urban functions" is provided for within "compatible and pleasant walking distance".

There was a loss of urban vitality caused to a large part by a deliberate and planned functional zoning of cities and urban areas. The subtitle of jacob's (1961) seminal book, the death and life of great American cities: the failure of town planning , was partivularly apt. Jacobs argued that a range of different building types and ages, with their variety of renting profiles, was vital to the life of urban areas.

A mixture of uses also reduces the need for transpoatation between the vatious zones.

Land use

Nearly half of british employees work in offices. Town centres contain the largest concentrations of office employment because building societies, banks, legal, accountancy and insurance firms are based there. Public, personal and distributional services are also important sources of employment. However, the traditional advantages of a town centre location- access to a large pool of both labour and customers, contact with other firms and the availability of facilities for office employees-have been offset by the lack of room for expansion, traffic congestion, parking problems and costly overheads.

Cuts in public administration, restructuring and downsizing within the financial services sector because of the recession and the instruction of labour saving technology have also raised .questions about the viability of town centres as office locations.

Despite these concerns, recent debate has focused on retailing and transportation issues and ways of introducing a wider mix of land uses.

Why had modern movement ideas of urban space and form gone so wrong? Comprehensive redevelopment and large-scale clearance and road building schemes were the visible problems, but there was also a loss urban vitally caused to a large part by a deliberate and planned functional zoning of cities and urban areas. While the process of redevelopment was highly disruptive to small firms and business, the product was also fatally flawed. Large, relatively simple blocks inevitably simplified the land use pattern removing the 'nooks and crannies' that gave life and variety to an area. (p 53 revitalizing historic urban quarters, 1996) the subtitle of jacob's (1961) seminal book, the death and life of great American cities: the failure of town planning, was particularly apt. Jacobs argued that a range of different building types and ages, with their variety of renting profiles, was vital to the life of urban areas.

There were - and have been - many critics of a rigid zoning approach. Jacobs (1961) argued that a great part of the success of neighbourhoods depended on the overlapping and interweaving of activities and areas. More recently, Leon Krier(1984) criticized the 'over-concentration' of single uses. The principal modern building types and planning models such as the skyscraper, the groundscraper, the central business district, the commercial strip, the office park, the residential suburb, etc are invariably horizontal or vertical over-concentrations of single uses in one urban zone, in one building programme, or under one roof' (Krier,1984).


In urban areas, especially outside shop and office hours, residential uses can help to create a 'living heart'. The 24 hour life brought by residents is a crucial contribution to the vitality of an urban quarter, creating greater indigenous demand for facilities in the city centre and, thereby, increasing the number and mix of uses within the quarter.