Rethinking the city – against the chain store monoculture in city centres

The “lively city centre” has been discussed for a long time, but how little “lively” city centres sometimes are today was shown when the pandemic shook up life in general.

It wasn’t only the lockdown with the closure of shops and restaurants that made many a city centre look in a new light. Even when shops, restaurants and cafés were open again, there was a big complaint that people were not flocking to the city centres. Especially cities where many tourists had previously populated the centres were surprised by having to realise that their own citizens tended to stay away and probably did not find their city centre really attractive.

But is that really surprising? If you look at the development of the past decades, shopping centres have been moved from greenfield sites back into the city centres, but this has not really made them more attractive, on the contrary. As a result, the cities sometimes lost the last individual, often long-established shops and the same big retail chains spread everywhere. It doesn’t matter whether you’re in this or that city – you’ll find the same offers everywhere. And it is precisely these same offers that can often be ordered online without any problems, so no one has to go to the city centre.

In order to lure people into the city, “adventure shopping”, food courts, leisure and fitness offers have recently been seen as recipes for more footfall, but even this only seems to work to a limited extent.

To put it bluntly, our cities now offer more or less monocultures of clothing chains from luxury labels to discounters, of drugstore and perfumery chains as well as providers of household appliances and mobile phone solutions. Even among pharmacies, chain stores are increasing and spreading. The same applies to the gastronomic offer. What one looks for in vain – at least in more or less prominent inner-city locations – are small local and individual shops as well as service providers with a special offer – from stationery shops to handicrafts shops and individual linen and household supply stores to facilities that do not only want to sell new products but also offer repairs.

With the restrictions imposed by the pandemic, which included the temporary closure of shops selling non-essential items, more and more of the clothing chains in particular are filing for bankruptcy. In other words, it is not only former department stores that have missed the boat and become unfashionable that will soon be empty, but also many shops in shopping centres and shopping streets.

It is not only the general decline in sales that is causing problems for businesses, but also the high shop rents that have to be paid in prime locations. These shop rents are in turn the reason why hardly anyone except the big chains could afford them and other shops disappeared.

It is understandable that a property owner wants to rent out his space as expensively as possible and that they deem it more likely to expect secure and stable income from a large chain than from a small local retailer. However, it is now becoming apparent that at least the security and stability aspect might be an error.

Whether and to what extent rethinking will set in among property owners is an open question. Therefore, there are now ideas and attempts by some city authorities to intervene in order to make city centre locations affordable again for local and small retailers and service providers.

Barcelona was one of the first cities to counteract the growing presence of chains in the city centre – with the success that the city is considered a shopper’s paradise, because here you can find a multitude of individual shops and offers that are not available elsewhere. In Barcelona, the City has promoted and supported the establishment of these individual and local retailers in the side streets of the Ramblas by subsidising them in paying the rents.

A similar concept is also being pursued in Paris. Therefore, Semaest was founded already in 2004, a company that buys up vacant shop spaces and rents them out to small and local retailers and service providers who fit into the respective neighbourhood and are needed there. The aim is to provide the neighbourhoods, which are often boring due to a monoculture of textile suppliers, with a diverse shopping and service offer again.

The first achievements are already evident, because when only a small percentage of the shop spaces are leased to interesting retailers, others follow suit, enriching the offer. Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris who was first elected in 2014 and re-elected in 2020, wants to pursue this concept for the Champs Élysées as well, not least to make the city less dependent on global companies and to strengthen the local economy. This is because retail chains only pay taxes at the company’s headquarters and not where they operate their shops.

City centres benefit from a diverse range of cultural institutions as well as shops and services. Only thus can they regain their attractiveness in the eyes of town citizens. Besides Barcelona, Paris’ latest efforts for a both lively and livable city centre are a positive example for this. And yet, not just the prevalence of chain stores but also the ongoing and impending changes in climate enforce a rethinking of how we design and develop cities. Therefore, „Rethinking the city – Less traffic, more greenery“, the follow-up of this insight, is concerned with the future of the city in the light of climate change.


Marianne Schulze

Independent journalist