The following article was first published at

This is an era when the interests of private capital, seeking ever more efficient commercial models and supported by the Government’s commitment to improvement and modernisation, led to a move from smaller town centre units to bigger out-of-town sites. The imperative for ever greater productivity and growth led, for the first time in England’s history, to a physical separation of these units from our towns and villages; bringing back into use previously disused and discarded wasteland on the edge of residential areas. The disparity between big and small units grew ever larger and we saw the slow death of small units in our towns and villages. This was accompanied by the collapse of the profession that perhaps characterises Englishness more than any other and the marginalisation of the surviving traditional community. Workers were forced to look elsewhere, to new industries and the sole trader was becoming a thing of the past.

This story, which feels so familiar, is in fact the story of farming in the 17th and 18th century, following the enclosures of common land. Of course, it also appears to be the story of shopping today, following the enclosures of markets and their domination by half a dozen supermarkets and retail giants.

Farms were traditionally at the heart of our communities, in the centre of our towns and villages. Today that seems unimaginable. So perhaps the few occasions when we can still witness the presence of farming in our towns and villages might offer clues to the future of retail, if the two industries appear to be following similar paths, centuries apart? So where do we still see farming today?

First, in small rural settlements, where farmers still drive livestock through the village to this day. Second, in farmers markets, which have thrived over the past decade and longer. Third, with ‘city farms’, created to educate and expand the horizons of inner city kids for whom a cow is just another funny animal in a book or on TV, perhaps less familiar than a meerkat. Finally, in the emerging phenomenon of urban farms, a more recent idea and one which aims to bring back agriculture into our settlements, perhaps to prove a point as much as reduce food miles and carbon consumption. Examples include FARM:shop in East London with its mini 'aquaponic' fish farm, rooftop chicken coops, indoor allotments and polytunnel, Frisch vom Dach on a Berlin rooftop and plans for the Diesel Depot site in central Bristol.

So what might this suggest the future holds for town centre retailing? First, it may only survive in small, rural settlements where community shops have been an outstanding success in commercial terms alone, community benefits aside, with a 97% success rate and gross average margins of 21%. Second, temporary markets which perhaps offer more of an experience than they do value for money; a fun and social day out to gawp and learn as much as an exercise to stock the shelves. Third, pop-up shops, playful and ironic shops hosting product launches and events, no longer serving their primary purpose of retail but a secondary function of awareness raising, fun or education. Finally even, heritage “shops”, which offer the simulacratic experience of meeting a real shopkeeper selling actual physical products you can touch and try before you buy – bring the kids for a great day out!

Perhaps not. Technological progress may even mean that all models of physical retail are ultimately doomed, regardless of location. While we haven’t yet found a way to farm without land, we are finding new ways to shop without real-world outlets (for example, 2012 Christmas sales figures saw Tesco sales drop 2.3% while Ocado’s were up 24%).

But perhaps farming today won’t be shopping tomorrow because we are seizing the chance to grab the horse before it’s bolted. Policymakers are at least talking about “town centres first” even if their policies don’t match the rhetoric. But above all, because communities will continue to care about their towns and villages and will fight to save them.

Very few of us would deny our social need to interact, a desire to be part of a community and an attachment to place. Town centres can scratch that itch. We may need to reinvent town centres more as playful places for leisure and entertainment and less about shopping and relentless consumption. But we have been ‘going into town’ for hundreds of years and will in all probability do so for years to come. What we don’t know yet is why.