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Digital’s impact on towns: the end of main street

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I’ve had several debates about the closure of shopping malls, the end of offices and the deserted high streets and main streets of the world. Add Covid lockdown to retail meltdown and the shops are disappearing faster than Donald Trump’s tweets. Thing is, the real question is: what is the future of retail and the City streets?

Well, here’s a bold idea: knock ‘em down. Destroy the streets! Smash the Cities! Reboot the world!

Oh yea, as if, you say, but this is not so imaginary as one town centre in Britain has proposed just this idea: Stockton-on-Tees. Their thinking is to bulldoze the main street and relay it as a nice open park for locals to enjoy, by the river.

“The future is not more shops. It’s about leisure, culture, events and recreation, and making it a nice place for people to simply be,” says councillor Nigel Cooke, cabinet member for regeneration.

According to The Guardian:

Standing in the council’s sights is the Castlegate shopping centre, a tired 1970s retail arcade, hotel and multistorey carpark designed by the notorious architect John Poulson. Stretching over 300 metres along the eastern side of Stockton high street, the building acts as a blunt brick barrier between the town centre and the river, blocking any sense that Stockton is indeed on-Tees.

Described by one local blog as “the biggest act of vandalism since Oliver Cromwell demolished Stockton Castle during the civil war”, Poulson’s project trampled a network of Victorian streets that led down to the river, replacing the alleyways with an impermeable, intractable lump, and compounding the sense of severance inflicted by a dual carriageway along the river’s edge. In 1973, a year after the Castlegate centre opened, Poulson was jailed for his role in a web of corruption, bribery and fraud across the north of England, but his legacy would continue to blight Stockton for decades to come.

This means that Stockton’s main street will convert from this brick monolith …

… to an open park by the river Tees …

“You can see why they wanted to turn their back on the river in the 1960s,” said councillor Nigel Cooke. “It was black. Industry had made it so polluted that there weren’t any fish in it for years, but now we have salmon swimming and rowers gliding through town. The river is a real asset. We’re not ashamed of it any more.”

Is this the future of cities and towns? They become rural parks with cafes and restaurants?

“Stockton is probably the best example in the UK of a town that’s recognised that shops are not going to be the mainstay of town-centre survival in the 21st century and we need to do something radical about it”, says Bill Grimsey, former Iceland chief executive and author of several national reviews on the future of high streets.

So, is it time to move on? Should we smash our cities, destroy our shops, bulldoze our offices and move to a fully digital world of online work and online shopping, augmented by offline meetings and offline leisure?

Looks that way …

Chris Skinner Author Avatar

Chris M Skinner

Chris Skinner is best known as an independent commentator on the financial markets through his blog,, as author of the bestselling book Digital Bank, and Chair of the European networking forum the Financial Services Club. He has been voted one of the most influential people in banking by The Financial Brand (as well as one of the best blogs), a FinTech Titan (Next Bank), one of the Fintech Leaders you need to follow (City AM, Deluxe and Jax Finance), as well as one of the Top 40 most influential people in financial technology by the Wall Street Journal's Financial News. To learn more click here...

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