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City centres are extremely important; the suburbs are too

All the political hype about the move towards city centres should not mask the fact that the suburbs are in dire need of retail infrastructure. Alain Boutigny takes a closer look.

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Family Village

Clichés are convenient little things, especially in the political arena, where they can be used without moderation whenever and wherever solid reasoning is lacking. Let’s take, for example, the push towards city centres, which politicians in France have been hammering into our heads for some time now. That is all the French government’s Ollier bill (which is in a sorry state) talks about: urban centrality, the suburban “plague” and the eternal love affair French citizens have with city centres.

Nonsense! The love the French have for their town centres doesn’t run that deep. In fact, they have clearly stated as much, making liars of the elite classes who have taken the liberty of speaking on their behalf. In a poll whose findings were published earlier this year, this “so-so” attitude was blatant! Leading market research agency TNS asked the following question: “Would you say that you like your town centre “a lot”, “somewhat”, “not really” or “not at all”. Well, believe it or not, 71% answered “not really”, (13%) “not at all” (4%), or “somewhat” or, in other words, “…it’s ok” (54%). Only 27% declared that they liked it “a lot”.

You will agree that’s not a significant figure. And yet, so many projects and extrapolations are based on it. They say that suburban areas have no future, that businesses have no reason to be there, and that petrol prices are soon going to deal them a death blow. On the other hand, the pretty little town centres are Gardens of Eden with their inaccessible alleyways, inadequate parking spaces, and capacity that just cannot be stretched any further.

And so the suburban residents, en masse, deprived of shopping centres and retail parks, will find themselves obliged to do their shopping in the city centre, and the flow of commuters will swell with the flow of casual visitors. We can construct buildings by the hundreds, add acres of retail space and organise the most efficient transport solutions possible, but the city centre can only contain so much. The city centre is a sentimental, historical concept to be sure, but one that is irrevocably limited. The automobile, aeroplane, and high-speed train all made the city centre redundant a long time ago. It will remain valuable of course, a little bit like a pre-historic landmark.

About Alain Boutigny

Alain Boutigny is the Editor-in-Chief of the weekly newsletter La Correspondance de L’Enseigne, targeting major retailers, developers and investors, and of Sites commerciaux, a monthly magazine for shopkeepers, shopping centre operators and property consultants.

Read more in MAPIC News 2011

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