The Strip Mall - USA

The Strip Mall – USA

Have we anything to learn from the Americans about the future of our High Streets? Having just returned from a road trip along the east coast and the Appalachians I think we can learn from their mistakes. The development of the strip mall, a group of buildings housing several retail stores with a shared parking lot, have led to the decline of the downtown areas. They form a “sprawl” along the highways leading to a town. Bill Bryson described this vividly in his book the Lost Continent back in 1988. Now the strip malls themselves are in decline. I saw lots of vacant lots with the box like buildings beginning to decay. Just outside Asheville I came across a complete empty mall. This isn’t an isolated example and bloggers like dumpystripmalls are recording closures.

I’ve always thought that the strip malls are terribly inconvenient. You have to shlep from mall to mall confronting the traffic, it’s inefficient in both time and fuel and they are not attractive places. I’m pleased to learn I’m not alone in this. In this article about land use they conclude that the future of retail in the States belongs to town centres and main streets. Some of the towns I saw that were beginning to see the renaissance of their downtown areas were so vibrant and interesting. Culpeper and Ashville were two of the best places I visited. There were some common threads to their development. Some shop space was being used for art and community projects. There was a good range of shops many providing aritisan goods and crafts. Most had a micro-brewery making some really interesting craft beers. In Ashville there were seven!

Downtown Culpeper

Downtown Culpeper

We may not have the same sprawl as in the States but we do have our own version. In Charlton there is a sprawl along Bugsby Way and there are plans to expand it. The strategic objective in the Charlton Masterplan is to“Stitch together the retail and residential neighbourhoods” which sounds like a lot of meaningless fluff. Sainsburys are re-locating to the Woolwich Road and there is a new Marks & Spencer store planned. On top of this just down the road in Woolwich is the Tesco monolith overshadowing General Gordon Square. It seems to me that there is a policy conflict – a desire to maintain our historic town centres and have shopping centres or our version of the strip mall. In a time of economic decline and austerity is this feasible?

Latest retail figures for the UK show that we may well be following the example of the U.S. High Street footfall is up 3.4%, the strongest performance since December 2011, whilst shopping centre visitors fell 3%. One of the reasons cited is that shoppers have been put off by the unattractiveness of the out of town centres prinicipally caused by closures such as Comet. Just like the States the proximity of an evening scene for drinks and food helps footfall. I for one hope that this trend continues. However, rather than building on the experience of other places we seem set on a course to open more out of town centres and the danger is that Woolwich, Eltham High Street, Charlton Village and Blackheath Standard could be affected.