Conference Report: Association of American Geographers Annual Meeting 2017

Association of American Geographers Annual Meeting 2017

4th Special Session – Retail aspects in Urban Geography and Urban Planning

Europe the state of play: the challenge of retail decentralisation

by Dr Steve Millington

This is the first conference report on the Association of American Geographers Annual Meeting 2017 that took place in Boston, USA, in April 2017The growth of OOT shopping centres, which privilege car access, together with online retailing, is is now creating challenges for towns and cities on mainland Europe.  There are parallels with our findings from the HSUK2020 and #BDSU projects, with medium sized centres facing the greatest threats from the retail disinvestment and decentralisation. In this first conference report you will find

German Retail Investment Markets facing continued Yield Compression: Strategies and Research Approaches for a wider range of Products and Locations. Maike Dziomba  (Redos) / University of Hamburg

With strong GDP growth, Germany is currently a safe haven for international investment in commercial real estate.  The distribution of this investment, however, is uneven.  Maike, therefore, provided a review of retail-property investment trends in Germany, identifying:

  1. A tendency towards refurbishment of existing retail space in large towns.
  2. The transformation of OOT retail parks into hybrid malls, which involves the subdivision of large outlets into smaller units
  3. Increasing investment in smaller towns, focused on a convenience offer.

Germany uses a hierarchy model in terms of retail planning, A, B, C and D places.  A/B refers to larger cities, C to medium-sized settlements and D to small towns and villages. Retail space is expensive in larger centres, but yields are low, consequently new developments are declining.  Instead, there is a preference for refurbishing existing stores.  High central costs are also driving the decentralisation of retail in Germany where large Out-of-Town large retail parks represent desirable investment locations.  There are over 300 such parks, mainly located outside of catchments of large cities, although competition between centres is low due to regulatory controls.   The nature of retail parks, however, is changing, as they are being transformed into hybrid malls (See:   In addition, there is increasing investment in D locations, which might include very small towns and villages, focused on providing food and convenience.  Catchments in smaller centres are beginning to benefit from wider diversity of choice in terms of food and access to fashion brands that previously only found in cities, but there are implications for medium-sized centres in terms of losing both footfall and investment to these decentralised locations.

For more information about Maike’s work:

Market-led urbanity: Retail planning and policies for urban quality. The case of Lausanne. Marta Alonso – Université de Genève

Marta is investigating retail centrality from a sustainable planning perspective.  In Switzerland, retail planning is regulated at a national level, but Marta suggests there are flaws in this approach, which favours retail development dependent on car access.  Marta argues that a more sustainable approach, clearly, would be to promote compact cities and restrict retail development dependent on car access.

One opportunity for intervention is connected to a legacy of Swiss planning, large scale New Town developments.  Although such developments integrated retail, these planned decentralised retail centres are said to lack important place qualities, which make them less attractive to suburban catchments, who might prefer to drive Out-of-Town or into established large centres, contributing further to traffic, congestion and pollution.

Marta suggests there is an opportunity to refresh existing retail provision, through qualitative improvements to and better integration into local places.  Specifically, Marta identifies a set of interventions to improve suburban retail centres places, which almost directly align with #HSUK2020 top 25 priority interventions.  In short, promoting denser, compact centres which re-inforce a diverse urban experience will make centres more attractive.  Marta, therefore, suggests an evaluation framework for measuring urban quality, which tracks urban form, function and usages, together with ambiance, and the everyday aesthetics of the service scape.  Her research reveals:

  • The importance of walkable and compact centres
  • Local action taken by stakeholders with local knowledge
  • Appearance and  street level design

In short, dense and diverse centres have a stronger and positive place image.  Places can begin improve appearance through micro-scale interventions, with the intention of replicating the qualities of dense urban environment to promote market-led agglomeration within suburban areas where car dependent retail prevails , as a strategy for more sustainable retailing.

For more information about Marta’s work:

Metropolitan retail systems and clusters of central functions: dynamics and territorial reactions in Lombardy. Mario Paris – Politecnico di Milano.

Mario’s research focuses on urban sprawl in Northern Italy, which is transforming the retail location.  Despite growth in this region, it appears the amount of retail space in established centres is declining, whereas new decentralised centres are emerging outside established centres.  Mario identifies:

  1. Well connected employment centres with a retail element
  2. Integration of fixed retail co-located with warehouses serving online shopping

Mario suggests this latter development possibly represent a new form of retail agglomeration.

With dencentralised clusters of edge cities or OOT retail locations, the implications for Italian cities is that they are beginning to resemble the disaggregated urban systems found in the USA and UK.

For more information about Mario’s work: