Farming Today, Shopping Tomorrow
Will town centres face the same future as farming, asks Dan Gregory
This is an era when the interests of private capital, seeking ever more
efficient commercial models and supported by the Government’s commitment
to improvement and modernisation, led to a move from smaller town
centre units to bigger out-of-town sites. The imperative for ever
greater productivity and growth led, for the first time in England’s
history, to a physical separation of these units from our towns and
villages; bringing back into use previously disused and discarded
wasteland on the edge of residential areas. The disparity between big
and small units grew ever larger and we saw the slow death of small
units in our towns and villages. This was accompanied by the collapse of
the profession that perhaps characterises Englishness more than any
other and the marginalisation of the surviving traditional community.
Workers were forced to look elsewhere, to new industries and the sole
trader was becoming a thing of the past.
This story, which feels
so familiar, is in fact the story of farming in the 17th and 18th
century, following the enclosures of common land. Of course, it also
appears to be the story of shopping today, following the enclosures of
markets and their domination by half a dozen supermarkets and retail
Farms were traditionally at the heart of our communities,
in the centre of our towns and villages. Today that seems unimaginable.
So perhaps the few occasions when we can still witness the presence of
farming in our towns and villages might offer clues to the future of
retail, if the two industries appear to be following similar paths,
centuries apart? So where do we still see farming today?
in small rural settlements, where farmers still drive livestock through
the village to this day. Second, in farmers markets, which have thrived
over the past decade and longer. Third, with ‘city farms’, created to
educate and expand the horizons of inner city kids for whom a cow is
just another funny animal in a book or on TV, perhaps less familiar than
a meerkat. Finally, in the emerging phenomenon of urban farms, a more
recent idea and one which aims to bring back agriculture into our
settlements, perhaps to prove a point as much as reduce food miles and
carbon consumption. Examples include FARM:shop in East London with its
mini 'aquaponic' fish farm, rooftop chicken coops, indoor allotments and
polytunnel, Frisch vom Dach on a Berlin rooftop and plans for the
Diesel Depot site in central Bristol.
So what might this suggest
the future holds for town centre retailing? First, it may only survive
in small, rural settlements where community shops have been an
outstanding success in commercial terms alone, community benefits aside,
with a 97% success rate and gross average margins of 21%. Second,
temporary markets which perhaps offer more of an experience than they do
value for money; a fun and social day out to gawp and learn as much as
an exercise to stock the shelves. Third, pop-up shops, playful and
ironic shops hosting product launches and events, no longer serving
their primary purpose of retail but a secondary function of awareness
raising, fun or education. Finally even, heritage “shops”, which offer
the simulacratic experience of meeting a real shopkeeper selling actual
physical products you can touch and try before you buy – bring the kids
for a great day out!
Perhaps not. Technological progress may
even mean that all models of physical retail are ultimately doomed,
regardless of location. While we haven’t yet found a way to farm without
land, we are finding new ways to shop without real-world outlets (for
example, 2012 Christmas sales figures saw Tesco sales drop 2.3% while
Ocado’s were up 24%).
But perhaps farming today won’t be shopping
tomorrow because we are seizing the chance to grab the horse before
it’s bolted. Policymakers are at least talking about “town centres
first” even if their policies don’t match the rhetoric. But above all,
because communities will continue to care about their towns and villages
and will fight to save them.
Very few of us would deny our
social need to interact, a desire to be part of a community and an
attachment to place. Town centres can scratch that itch. We may need to
reinvent town centres more as playful places for leisure and
entertainment and less about shopping and relentless consumption. But we
have been ‘going into town’ for hundreds of years and will in all
probability do so for years to come. What we don’t know yet is why.