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A town of no centres

The high street is finished. Part of the argument supporting this view is to do with mobility. As long as you can get somewhere where the greater choices exist, you can spread your life transactions over these geographies. Scale matters. This begins to suggest that the centre of town, well, isn’t.

Public sector asset management is an important shaper of the civic infrastructure of a place. Where public assets are, what they do and who they serve can have big impacts on the way in which people transact with each other.

One approach to asset management is bundling of assets, consolidating properties, switching off sub offices, and rationalising the estate. This creates large service centres, where multiple public services share the same space. Scale matters. When you think about this, it means that small things in some neighbourhoods will switch off, and somewhere else will things will get bigger.

Service delivery is networked across wide geographies, where particular nodes come into play to deliver the service. They are where they are; they don’t always correlate with traditional town centre or neighbourhoods, or even need. To access the services, you need to be mobile. This begins to suggest that the centres of neighbourhoods, well, aren’t.

Town planning, like many disciplines of future thinking, uses models to frame how the world might look. Many plans, and masterplans at the town and neighbourhood scales, talk about centres. But what does this actually mean? Does it mean a single shop, or a supermarket? Does it mean some civic infrastructure? How meaningful is it, and to who?

Some contemporary planning seems to follow the market rather than shape it so who is in the neighbourhood at any one time might be all couples with no children, all families with no couples and so on. Do too many planned neighbourhoods have homogeneous demographic? This raises the very valid question about who a centre is for, and what it really means.

Imagine a town with no centres. What would this place be? What would its civic DNA be? Imagine economies of scale didn’t work for all people all the time. Imagine community services delivered in the community, where people are and solutions are worked out together.

Imagine some service providers deciding that actually larger buildings don’t always result in better service, nor cheaper facility management. Imagine we listened to people in health and education who tell us that the deep, long lasting impacts that sustain people are founded on connection and transition; building awareness of each other and building confidence in moving through our lives. What would the spatial expression of this be? What transactions would we do there, how would they be enabled, how would we describe it?

I once read that places are centres of collective meaning. For this to be true, much like Victor Frankl, we must start by believing in Man’s Search for Meaning. A town with no centres has no meaning. It has lost the sense of itself, which allows others to participate in discovering a sense of themselves. Centres aren’t shops, but centres are not unimportant as ideas. A town with no centres is not a town. It is lost.

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