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.

 

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7 thoughts on “Cities Without Shops

  1. Joanna @ CreateYourWorld January 6, 2014 / 1:23 pm

    What a great post! Strange thought. That cities are.losing their meaning… I guess people would still work in the cities, though more and more work remotely so that could change too…

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  2. Erik R. January 6, 2014 / 4:16 pm

    With Facetime and Facebook, and Amazon drones, I can just lie here in my pajamas with their ever-expanding waistline until…….

    While these are interesting half-baked musings for sure, they seem to fall into the luddite “technology is ruining everything!” category that people have been decrying for centuries. And they’ve been partially right: things change, but usually for the better.

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    • simonlitton January 6, 2014 / 4:38 pm

      Far from it. I never said that technology was ruining cities, much less that a city without shops would be a bad idea. The space freed up by losing the malls could be used for parks, cultural centres, etc. Or we could just make cities smaller, which would benefit the environment.

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  3. Gwen January 6, 2014 / 7:15 pm

    A friend of mine used to have a website called Wallet Mouth. Its tagline was, ‘Your mouth is a wallet. When you spend money, you tell the world how you want it to be.’ That often blips across my mind when I’m deciding where to buy something.

    I live in a tiny city (pop. 9000) with lots of independent retailers. I love to shop Montpelier. It’s a real community, and there’s a strong awareness about buying local. Everybody knows each other, so you usually know the person whose business you’re supporting. But I don’t drive a car, so anything I can’t buy in the village I tend to order online.

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  4. Laura January 7, 2014 / 2:12 pm

    It would be great if the increase in online shopping led to a decrease in chain stores in town centres, and an increase of the small independent retailers which make Brighton and Montpellier such great places to spend time browsing.

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  5. simonlitton January 7, 2014 / 2:15 pm

    Exactly. Although there’s no reason small retailers can’t move online too. In fact it probably makes more financial sense for them.

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    • Laura January 7, 2014 / 2:29 pm

      Very true, although your point about trying on clothes becomes even more relevant with independent shops as, unless you shop there often, it’s not so easy to be sure of their sizing (I really hate sending stuff back from the post office).

      Like

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