A little while ago I came across a new article by Julian Dobson entitled “from me towns to we towns”. I invited Julian to summarise this for this blog, but he thought some up to date context would work better than a simple summary of the article. So what follows is Julian’s take on high streets for consumers or citizens? It poses and answers the vital question of who are our high streets/town centres/places for? And for what purpose?
Early in November, Dover became the latest of Britain’s town centres where you could no longer buy a Big Mac and fries.
There was a time when the McDonaldisation of our high streets was seen as a threat. Today, local newspapers report a sense of nostalgia as customers share their McMemories of a fast food retailer that had become regarded as a cornerstone of the community.
The sense of place attachment associated with a global brand that is indistinguishable wherever you go poses questions of what we now expect of contemporary town centres. Despite the flurry of activity associated with government reviews a few years ago, the responses to such questions have not changed much.
The responses tend to fall into four broad categories. The first is to say the town centre as we used to know it is obsolete. The second is to say we shouldn’t worry, because the changing face of the high street is simply ‘adaptive resilience’.
The third is to go for big, glitzy redevelopment schemes, hoping a shiny new shopping centre will bring back the crowds. The fourth, with a range of permutations, argues that small is beautiful, and advocates local, fine-grained, independent futures for town centres, often coupled with digital innovation.
In all these narratives the user of town centre space is constructed first and foremost as a consumer. And consumers, by definition, have the means to consume. High streets that are only shopping streets are for those who can afford to be there.
But even in today’s stripped-out and struggling town centres, people do more than shop. Children and young people play and socialise. People learn, argue, laugh, watch and sit. Some of them even debate and protest.
In a new article for the journal Citizenship Studies, I argue that our town centres can be places of emergent and insurgent citizenship, where members of the public can challenge and expand the limited range of future imaginaries typically offered by planners and property developers.
I discuss three examples of such citizenship, initiatives where local people have constructed new narratives of place and space in opposition to dominant ideas of the town centre. The People’s Republic of Stokes Croft in Bristol, Incredible Edible Todmorden in Yorkshire, and Transition Town Totnes in Devon have all offered more inclusive and imaginative futures for their localities.
They are not the only ones. But they are interesting in that each of them offers not just an alternative vision for a place, but a different vision of who it is possible to be in that space. They are visions in which citizens actively shape the places they live in and expect to be acknowledged and respected, not simply ‘consulted’ about local futures.
Through such activity local citizens can appropriate, reframe and expand narratives of adaptation and resilience, insisting that the ‘single story’ is not the only one. As I comment in Citizenship Studies, ‘Within an activist reframing of resilience, the commercial heart of a town can become a site for experimentation in economic models that value local networks, products and distinctiveness.’
Julian Dobson (2017) From ‘me towns’ to ‘we towns’: activist citizenship in UK town centres,Citizenship Studies Vol. 21 , Iss. 8,
Julian Dobson is a “writer, researcher, former journalist, recidivist poet, and apprentice allotmenteer” and the author of How to Save our Town Centres, available here, and which has featured in this blog before