by Ares Kalandides*
I recently had the opportunity to visit the town of Emsdetten (Westphalia, Germany), invited by the mayor’s office, in order to discuss the possibilities of a new Town Centre Management scheme. Emsdetten is a small town of 35,000 inhabitants in Westphalia, close to the city of Münster. Its centre, defined by a ring road and comprising approximately one tenth of the whole area, mainly consists of semi-pedestrianized streets and a locally important retail sector. What is however striking, is that in this rather wealthy town, where unemployment is low (under 4%) and medium income high, there are more and more empty shops. What exactly is happening here? And, furthermore, what can a future Town Centre Management do?
The IPM has been collecting and analysing similar information from UK cities for a long time , looking both at the factors that contribute to a place’s vitality and to broader trends in retail (e.g. the HSUK2020 and BDSU projects) . Whereas the UK experience cannot be directly transferred to Germany, there are however several phenomena that we observe – e.g. growth of online retail, changes in customer expectations, lifestyle differentiation, income disparities – across borders in many European locations.
Emsdetten is a good example of a town administration very actively engaged in improving the quality of live for all inhabitants in general, and in supporting retail businesses in particular.
There is hardly a month, without some town fete, festival or larger event, e.g. with consumer goods produced in the region, food from local restaurants, music in the town pubs and more. All these events are always well-visited and contribute to the town centre vitality, although their contribution to the local retail is rather limited.
Another project of interest, an incentive to buy locally, is the Emsdetten Voucher, accepted by many shops in the town centre. Anybody can buy it online, customize it, print it out or forward it as a present.
There is free WiFi in the town centre and a lot of attention has been paid to the quality of public spaces with benches, flowers and public art. Also, the town has bought its train station from the German Rail (Deutsche Bahn) and has refurbished it beautifully.
So, what should a Town Centre Management do when so much is already being done? There are probably at least five areas where such a scheme could be active:
(a) It can bring together existing activities, combine them and turn them into a coherent narrative, branding them appropriately.
(b) It can offer services to existing retailers, help them modernize both their online presence and their offline shop.
(c) It can develop a strategy to activate vacant spaces, with pop-ups, start-up competitions, co-working spaces – keeping in mind that retail is not the only option.
(d) It can reexamine the quality of urban design: the architecture in public space, lighting and landscaping; street furniture such as bicycle stands, benches, signage etc. as well as other factors that add to the place’s attractiveness and vitality (s. the IPM’s work on vital and viable neighbourhoods).
(e) It can focus on strengthening existing partnerships, working with them on a masterplan to tackle future challenges.
Indeed one of the main outcomes of this trip for me was a reminder that we should reconsider the role of our town centres. If retail is changing, we can expect to see less of it in the future or at least retail which will be more unequally distributed .
But town centres are more than just places of consumption: they are vital spaces of leisure, culture and recreation, they are public spaces where people meet and interact, where communities are forged. And the task today is to rethink all of these functions including, but not limited to, retail.