This is a picture of Lucca in Italy. It is one of the most perfect examples of a preserved medieval town centre. Urban planners love it because its almost archetypal in layout. There is a central square with a church, a tight network of (we hope) busy streets and a 'cordon sanitaire' of parkland around the edge, which was once protection against invaders and now demarcates very precisely the area that tourists visit.
Its still a charming town today - for tourists. But how economically successful is it?
I was reminded of Lucca when I read about the furore that has been caused by the recent suggestions, not least by TV guru, Mary Portas, that the High Street is dead. The suggestion is that the retail area should contract and the rest should be given over to housing - relaxing planning codes and getting life into the town centres. I don't wholly disagree with the suggestion. Portas recognises that Town Centres are about more than shopping. It is the prevailing assumption that town centre = retail, and nothing else, that worries me.
Traditionally town centres were the centre of all types of commerce, and I use that word in its widest sense. Commerce isn't just buying and selling goods. Commerce should also be about the exchange of ideas, cultures, rumours, favours and - most importantly - employment. That is why the out of town shopping centre, or even the town centre shopping mall is almost always a mind-numbingly dull experience. Yes you can buy clothes and shoes, but is there a place to sit and chat with your neighbours, is there a theatre or even a bookshop?
All the other town centre functions like civic management, offices, theatres, education - you name it - they've moved to the bypass. Even Cambridge University has been steadily developing out of town for the last twenty years, to such an extent that the bicycle clutter is disappearing. Students need cars, like everybody else now, if they are to get to their labs several miles outside town.
One of the reasons that I call my blog coffee in the square is because of a realisation that town centres are as much about meeting your friends and colleagues over coffee than they are about shopping. In fact, in a bid to reduce my consumption I rarely frequent the high street these days - even though I live five minutes from Oxford Street. I'd much prefer to mooch around Soho, with its independent shops, galleries, cafes and studios than slog through the crowds visiting the high street chains.
The simplification of high street commerce has got to such a point that very few towns have independant retailers anymore.Yet, all the great high street brands that we know and love started off somewhere as independants. It's a fact of life that the vast majority of our consumption is with the high street retailers. If you don't believe me just look at what you are wearing today - I'll bet most of you will be wearing high street brands, down to your socks!
But is it chicken or egg? Do we buy from the high street because they have pushed out all the other functions, or have we only got high street brands because we never shopped anywhere else?
A friend of mine went out for lunch is Phoenix the other day. He related his dismay when, instead of stopping at some down-town haunt their hosts car drew up at a mall. They were pleased to get a window seat at the restaurant, the food was excellent, the company stimulating. But what was the window view? It was the car park! (So much for cultural richness.)
Travelling everywhere by car isn't just costly in carbon terms. A car based society is socially divided. It is in walkable city centres that rich and poor, foreign and native meet on equal terms. I would maintain that the ability to meet your fellow citizens on equal terms is one of the tenets of civilisation. How else do ideas travel; how else do people learn to empathise with those less or more fortunate than themselves?
We all understand that a car based society excludes the underprivileged. But I would question whether this hatred of bankers, this suspicion of politicians isn't also because we just never meet them face to face. How often do we see snippets of TV news footage of the privileged speeding away from the camera inside a nice car? John Major is credited in winning the 1992 election because he got up on a soap box, to deliver his speeches. But the real benefit to his campaign was that he got down amongst ordinary people, who responded by believing in him as an ordinary human being and not a party grandee.
So I would advise town centres to be cautious of heeding Mary Portas's advice, to turn those secondary shopping streets into housing. I think, even though she mentions them in her report, she's forgotten all the other reasons for town centres to exist. Her twenty eight recommendations are very retailer focused. Of course we should be looking at widening the retail offer, but Local Authorities should be more pro-active in introducing offices, studies, cafes, pubs, theaters, libraries, colleges and civic centres. The real win would be for one of the favoured pilot towns to move its offices from the ring road, back into the town centre.