skip to main content

→ Top Stories:
Clean Power plan
Safe Chemicals

Kaid Benfield’s Blog

Key ingredients for a successful "social town center"

Kaid Benfield

Posted February 11, 2011

, , , , , ,
Share | | |

  Eastbourne (UK) town center (by: Kevin Smith, creative commons license)

If some of the traditional functions of town centers, like shopping and office concentrations, are diminishing due to technology and economic changes, can they still have a purpose?  That is the intriguing question posed by British urbanist Julian Dobson in a provocative essay titled “From Ghost Town to Host Town,” published first by his consultancy, Urban Pollinators, and condensed in a post on the Sustainable Cities Collective site.  (Sustainable Cities syndicates work from a roster of writers, occasionally including yours truly.) 

In the longer version, Dobson posits that “planning policies that favored town center developments [based on retail] masked three problems: the UK has more retail space than it needs; the nature of retail is changing fundamentally as an increasing proportion of business is done online; and the debt-fuelled rise in personal disposable income has ground to a halt.”  Those problems are not, of course, limited to the UK, and I would add that telecommuting and corporate downsizing (sometimes in space even when not in people) are also changing demand for traditional downtown functions.  Not to mention a half-century of unchecked sprawl.

But the changing nature of retail is Dobson’s main point, and he observes that, especially in smaller towns and neighborhood shopping centers, stores are continuing to close.  “Nostalgia and middle-class spending power won’t save our town centers,” he writes.  So, if you care about places, what to do?  Acknowledge that there are other reasons, more relevant to the 21st century, for town centers:

Rochester (NY) Public Market (by: City Hall Photo Lab via American Farmland Trust)The real challenge will be to turn towns into social centers that support a very wide range of overlapping activities, only some of which are to do with shopping. That means making town centers places for everyone and finding ways to make the various activities they engage in mutually supportive.”  (Emphasis mine.)

Such as?  Dobson offers seven “pillars” of a social town center:

  1. A living town center.  “Town centers need to be promoted as places to live for a wide mix of people.”
  2. A learning town center.  This might “combine formal learning accredited by universities and colleges with spaces for informal learning and exchanges of skills.”
  3. A greener town center.  “Interest in local growing projects is rising as consumers become more aware of the waste associated with global food distribution systems, and  climate change is likely to increase the need for local food resources and for the relearning of gardening skills.”
  4. street musicians, NYC (by: Krissa Corbett Cavouras, creative commons license)A creative town centre.  “Creative activities will draw people into urban spaces, generating interaction and business opportunities. Many such activities need temporary, flexible space rather than permanent buildings.”
  5. A networked town center.  “The key to a successful center is not the buildings or the retail offer; it is the people.  People attract other people.”
  6. Social supply chains.  “Town centers that support networking and creativity make good business sense. There is an opportunity to recreate the kind of networks that enabled market towns to succeed in the past - the personal relationships between suppliers, links between producers and consumers.”
  7. Planned fluidity.  Town centers . . . need to be planned for shifting modes of transport, flexible public space, and changes of use that are likely to become more frequent than the planning system currently allows.”

So there you have it.  Personally, I have seen too many successful revitalization efforts to give up on traditional downtown functions, and I’m not entirely sure that Dobson’s alternatives are strong enough to replace them in any event.  But there’s more than a touch of Richard Florida’s creative class thinking in what Dobson writes, and I think his ideas certainly provide food for thought, and for bearing in mind as we address long-range planning opportunities in towns and cities.  Numbers 1, 4 and 7 especially make sense to me.

There is more detail and fleshing out in Dobson’s own writing, of course.  If this whets your appetite (forgive two food metaphors in a row, OK?), here are links to the Sustainable Cities post, the post on Dobson’s own blog, and the longer essay in his firm’s newsletter.

Move your cursor over the images for credit information.

Kaid Benfield writes (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment.  For more posts, see his blog's home page. 

Share | | |


Patrick KennedyFeb 11 2011 11:57 AM

It is critical to distiguish that when Dobson talks of town centers, he's referring to actual towns and actual centers of town (or at least some level within the hierarchy of nodes or pulse points within the town). It is difficult to make a direct comparison between British towns and cities and American anti-cities (not that they or we are against cities, but just that we have destroyed nearly all of the interconnectivity and centrality that is fundamental in networks, living systems, cities).

Instead of doing the hard work and create real town centers, we just label places as "town centres" (sic), such as this place I wrote for D Magazine about as exemplar for having heart in the right place but no real understanding of how cities work:

As Tyler Durden once said, "sticking feathers up your butt does not make you a chicken." ICSC seems to think so however.

Jon ReedsFeb 11 2011 12:19 PM

I'd pretty much agree with Julian's seven pillars, although I'm unsure about the reference to "shifting modes of transport". What town centres (in Britain and America) need is ways of getting people into them easily that don't involve cars and are sufficiently attractive to allow them to compete with out-of-town destinations to which people can drive. Better facilities for walkers and cyclists are no-brainers, but towns also need good sustainable public transport, rail-based where possible.
I'd also raise a thought about town centres in the evening. Here in Britain, many are taken over on Friday and Saturday nights by boozed-up youngsters - which deters the rest of the population. How should town centres deal with their "vodka and vomit zones"?
But generally I think town centres do need to widen their thinking beyond shopping and return to wider, more traditional attractions. Nevertheless, we need to protect and revive traditional ways of shopping. We have "walk your kids to school" campaigns, how about "walk your goods home from the shop" ones?

Julian DobsonFeb 11 2011 12:23 PM

Many thanks for the post, Kaid, and I appreciate you picking this up.

A couple of clarifications as my piece was written from a UK perspective. First, I think the major cities (and the biggest out of town malls) and the most affluent smaller towns will continue to succeed without changing their retail offer. Whether that's a good thing is a separate debate. The issue is that in doing so they will drain away custom from many nearby towns (population up to 200,000) that will struggle to compete. These are the ones that will need to change their offer.

And while I understand where you're coming from with the creative class reference, I'd argue that all people are creative - successful towns I think will be places that are able to maximise the opportunities for them to explore their creativity, not just in arts, but in community activity, environmental action and in business.

DFeb 11 2011 01:47 PM

These are all great points about the town centres themselves, but what's not addressed is the competition and the environments that are replacing them. Sure, we're doing more office work and shopping online than ever before, but so long as we continue to prefer office parks and power centres for 'real' working and shopping (not just niche 'creative' or 'boutique' experiences), the town centre will be constrained to a very small portion of community and economic life, which is unfortunate from a sustainability perspective, given that town centres are usually more walkable, better served/serveable by transit, and have a tighter mix of uses. In the end, it's as much (if not more) about what office parks and retail are built (or not built) elsewhere as it is about the town centre itself.

Mick BiggsFeb 11 2011 06:46 PM

There are certainly shifts going on in every town and city, shifts into town, shifts out of town, as there has been over the last couple of centuries. A nice way of looking at this ebb and flow is to see it in terms of production vs consumption.

Cities may well be losing some of their recent focus on retail consumption, particularly shopping, however while we can see movements 'online', Main Street has proved surprisingly resilient, in part because shopping has been increasingly sold as an 'experience' and also becomes some items such as clothing are not particularly suited to online purchase. Furthermore people use the amenities that are on offer. This is particularly true of Dobson's own Sheffield, which has a comparably small retail sector, but one which is due to expand with multi-million pound investment in the years to come.

Despite this shopping is consumptive activity and doesn't sit particularly well next to more productive activity of the office kind. What does work well is cafes, restaurants, bars.

Corporations such as Apple, Google and Pixar as well as entrepreneurs all agree that ideas are formed and partnerships truly forged more often over a coffee or a beer (or at the watercooler), than in a more formal meeting.

Some shifting towards more social cities will occur in some places and not in others. I suspect it will depend on local governance, more than on natural evolution. Business will locate/relocate to downtown areas where they perceive a productive/networking advantage by doing so.

Similarly cities will become greener, more networked, more learner-friendly etc. or as ASNED would say 'more diverse and more attractive', if and only if there is a vision from City Hall that encourages this development.

We can frame this development in terms of shopping vs social, or alternatively see it as production vs consumption ...With socialising nicely straddling and unifying the two worlds!

Kaid @ NRDCFeb 13 2011 11:19 AM

Thanks to all for the valuable additional perspective. And, Julian, thanks especially for stopping by. Keep up the good work!

Comments are closed for this post.


Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit

Feeds: Stay Plugged In