Cities Without Shops

Chatting with friends the other day about Christmas shopping and New Year sales, I started to have a thought. Extrapolate current trends (notably online shopping and 3D printing) to an extreme and try to picture the end result: what if in the future there were no such thing as shops? I mean, not in the physical sense. We’re already starting to see some towns, affected by the financial crisis, with half empty High Streets, and it feels a little weird.

My own attitude to online shopping is ambivalent. I love to browse in a real bookshop (no, I can’t browse properly on amazon), and it seems logical to buy clothes somewhere you can try them on first, but it also makes sense that many things can simply be ordered sight unseen.

But looking beyond the current economic situation and taking technological developments into account, if you could acquire anything you wanted either by ordering it online or by downloading and printing it yourself, what happens to those parts of town currently filled with brick and mortar retail establishments? Imagine that you remove commerce from the physical space, that leaves the centres of towns free to fulfil other functions, which seem to me to be primarily eating, drinking, meeting friends and entertainment. Town centres tend to be social spaces (manufacturing, agriculture etc. can happen on the edges), although I suppose religious and political buildings are usually in the centre too.

But if you don’t need to shop, when and why do you go into town? During the day I don’t think it’s likely you’d make the journey just for a coffee or a bite to eat; those kinds of cafés and bistros seem primarily to serve shoppers, and I can’t imagine they’d have much trade if all the other trade around them were to vanish. That leaves the possibility that the days are populated solely by tourists, with an influx of residents in the evenings looking for food, drink and entertainment, assuming they can’t get anything they need at home or at a friend’s house. Maybe people would start moving their residences back into the centres, rather than living out in the suburbs? Traffic congestion would probably decrease.

For centuries people came to town to go to the marketplace. If the marketplace comes to you, cities may lose their purpose, or at least have to find a new one.