A few years ago a number of retail academics gathered at a conference in Columbus, Ohio. The local shopping centre was a little bit different to the run of the mill American mall, having pavements and streets, with on street parking and quite a European feel. Going European was the new concept of the time. So imagine our European surprise when at 1000 at night the tannoys got going asking people to get off the streets and clear the centre. This was very much a private shopping mall and not a town centre (despite being called that). Private space not public space.
I was reminded of that last week when it was announced that LOCOG (the London Olympics Organising Committee) had decided that on Friday and Saturday of last weekend, the Westfield Stratford City Shopping Centre would be closed to the public. It would only be open to those with Olympic tickets. So here we have not even the owners of the shopping centre, and certainly not the retailers, deciding who can go into the shops. There’s private space and there’s Olympic space.
There has been much in recent weeks about private space in the context of what is allowed in town and city centres and who decides what can happen where. As we have built centres inside town centres, so the high street and public realm has been replaced by the centre and the private realm. It has of course always been thus, with the arcades of the Victorian era doing exactly the same, having their own rules and regulations and even their own policing. But the scale of the current situation is what is has changed.
And it is of course not just in town centres. Shopping centres are very much private space and as shopping has changed so more of our shopping trips and behaviours and interactions are with private spaces. As these retail spaces gain market share so too our town centres have sought to mimic aspects of their success, leading to more controls and more standardisation on previously messy and complicated public space.
Yet whilst standardisation and privatisation of retail space does bring some benefits and seems to work for many consumers, there is also a sense of something lost. Next door to Westfield Stratford City is the old high street and markets of Stratford, with variation and choice and without the ability of the Olympic Organisers to tell them to close their doors to the public. We need to be able to have high streets and public spaces that provide this variety and diversity, as well as allowing the public to create the space rather than being told what to do, and hurried off the streets when they become inconvenient.
Meanwhile in the Olympic Park they run out of food and some merchandise; obviously too many people in some places and not enough in others. The Olympics have been a triumph in a sporting sense, but it will be interesting in the coming weeks to see how widely the commercial elements have or have not been shared.