We can’t let lockdown kill the public realm

Our town centres are not just for shopping. They are essential to a democratic society.

Jacob Phillips


The retail sector is facing an extremely difficult year. Some national chains like TM Lewin and Oasis are disappearing completely, with other stalwart chains like M&S and John Lewis are planning to close stores. The media reports focus on job losses, bandying around phrases like ‘accelerated change’ to describe the pandemic adding momentum to the inevitable decline of the high street in favour of online shopping. But in all this we should remember that high streets are about more than commerce.

A town or city’s high street is its civic centre. These civic centres might now be less frequented than they were in the past. But while people may go there primarily to shop, town centres also serve as informal meeting places, shared spaces, and reflect the values and history of a community. But this aspect of the public realm has appeared to be in decline.

William Blake described 18th-century London as full of faces bearing ‘Marks of weakness, marks of woe’. Blake also mentioned ‘blights of plague’, perhaps echoing the endless socially distanced queues, the masks, the taped-up benches, and all the empty cafés and pubs. Memories of a bustling and vibrant city centre seem a long time past at the moment.

This demise has been brewing for a while. The first ‘out-of-town shopping centre’ was opened in 1976, at Brent Cross, among the gruesome flyovers of the North Circular. New Society magazine famously critiqued Brent Cross as ‘a veritable perfumed nirvana’ of superficial ‘prettiness’, which masked the fact it was actually ‘just as soulless’ as its unpleasant surroundings. The heyday of the British shopping centre was the late 1990s, just before the ‘dotcom bubble’ began to inflate. Between 1997 and 1998 there sprang up the White Rose near Leeds, Cribbs Causeway near Bristol, and the Trafford Centre near Manchester.

The concept is, of course, American – ‘the mall’. It promised US-style convenience for people to drive, park and spend the day under one roof, sheltered from English rain and all the awkwardness of archaic medieval street plans. But with the opening of Westfield – first in White City, and then on a site adjacent to the Olympic Park in east London – it seemed clear enough that ‘out of town’ was no longer the modus operandi, so much as ‘instead of the town’, replacing the city centre.

Many commentators have argued in recent weeks that a remnant of embodied retail will endure beyond Covid-19 and the expansion of the internet. In all likelihood, shopping centres are where this residual presence will be found. But there is much to be lost along with town centres as informal meeting places for the inhabitants of a particular locale.

Town centres are inescapably democratic. I don’t mean democratic in the sense of elections, but in the sense that they draw in whoever happens to live in the locality. This is where anyone is entitled to gather. The most obvious example is the homeless beggar, who is excluded from the sanitised shopping mall. But there are also those too elderly to drive. In many urban environments, a culture of ‘hanging about’ compensates for the struggles of dense housing, a lack of gardens, and overcrowding at home.

But these organic gathering places are also related to democracy proper. A shared urban environment can foster what Christopher Lasch, in his 1996 book The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, called ‘a lively civic spirit’ and ‘a vigorous civic culture’.

The public realm fosters participation in public life. Lasch wrote that while ‘the pub and the coffee shop’ seem ‘at first sight to have nothing to do with politics’, they contribute ‘to the kind of wide-ranging, free-wheeling conversation on which democracy thrives’, but were ‘threatened with extinction as neighbourhood hangouts give way to shopping malls, fast-food chains, and takeouts’.

The sociologist Ray Oldenburg coined the phrase ‘third place’ to describe a social space which was neither home nor work – an informal meeting place where interactions and conversations were ‘predicated on human decency’. The defining aspect of such places is their spontaneity and informality. People aren’t just focused on particular reasons for being in each other’s company; they are just sharing a communal space.

With fewer and fewer people sharing civic space, online echo chambers threaten to become physically solidified, too. Belonging to a public realm is one the best ways to counter this tendency. As the lockdown lifts, it is vital that the public realm, and all that comes with it, is revived.

Jacob Phillips is an academic living in London. Follow him on Twitter: @Counteredlogos

Picture by: Getty.

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dom torato

13th July 2020 at 7:14 am

William Blake described 18th-century London as full of faces bearing ‘Marks of weakness, marks of woe’.

jacquline fariendess fariendess

12th July 2020 at 1:17 pm

With the Spiteful Nannying Party making muzzles mandatory, the evidence is that it is malevolence that is motivating the move now. HERE► Click For Full Detail.

dom torato

12th July 2020 at 7:51 am

It”s not the pandemic that accelerating the decline of the high street, it’s the boneheaded overreaction on the part of government to C-19 HERE► Read More

dom torato

12th July 2020 at 7:50 am

With the Spiteful Nannying Party making muzzles mandatory, the evidence is that it is malevolence that is motivating the move now. HERE► Read More

Ness Immersion

9th July 2020 at 11:27 pm

With the Spiteful Nannying Party making muzzles mandatory, the evidence is that it is malevolence that is motivating the move now.
There is a host of evidence that they are at best pointless, at worst liable to increase bacterial infections.
The SNP are apparently worried the economy cod partially recover, they intend to completely wreck the economy whilst blaming the eeeevil tories.
Collateral damage is not even considered.
One only has to look at the comparative performance of the govt agencies the Natzis have control of like health, education or police to realise that it must be malevolence as no one could be that incompetent.

Ed Turnbull

9th July 2020 at 5:28 pm

It”s not the pandemic that accelerating the decline of the high street, it’s the boneheaded overreaction on the part of government to C-19 that’s the main factor at play here. And having nailed their colours to the wrong mast they lack the moral fortitude to admit their error and return things to normal (real normal, not ‘new normal’). And what really depresses me is that the vast majority of the populace believed the lie and went along with it. When a black man dies in police custody 4000 miles away in a foreign country we have mayhem in the streets, but when an incompetent government steals our liberty and trashes the economy…tumbleweeds. The few brave souls who did voice dissent were cracked down on by the forces of the state, lest the truly awful virus of rationality spread and erode the government’s fig leaf.

And here in Scotland the rogues and waistrels that lurk in Holyrood have decreed that, as of tomorrow, we must all wear ‘face coverings’ in shops. Is SARS-CoV-2 suddenly going to become more infectious or lethal on 10th July? No, they’ve decreed this simply because they can. Yet more theatre of the absurd to torment us poor damned souls. I’ve always been of the opinion that *real* evil rarely arrives on cloven hooves accompanied by the whiff of brimstone, no, it most often comes in the form of petty bureaucrats who’ve unwisely been given too much power. These are the people who are destroying our high streets, and our society. For our own good, of course.

Gareth Edward KING

9th July 2020 at 10:26 pm

I can assure you that you’re not alone with your ideas. The PSOE-UP minority government in Spain suddenly announced that death masks are to be worn at all times in Madrid since lockdown came to an end (ostensibly) June 21st. Not only do people wear these pesky muzzles at all time but there are plenty who also keep latex gloves on and carry around disinfectant gel! And this in 38 degrees C. heat! I’ve seen kids with these face rags on, so their ill-informed parents must’ve told them to do such. I’m sick of being told to ‘put it on’, ‘pull it up to cover nose’ etc., etc. There are those who even are so sad that they turn them into fashion accessories so that they match with the rest of their togs; this means that the original sanitary function is simply forgotten. I’m now reminded of what Mahyar Tousi said recently on TriggerNometry about his youth in Iran when women would wait till the Islamic morality police would makes themselves absent so that they could lower their niqbar or chador. It’s no exaggeration to say that Spain is on its way to becoming a fundamentalist, fearful state. Normalising the use of these face wads has no scientific basis whatsoever and it beggars belief that ‘safety’ has been able to swiftly crush any notion of freedom, almost at the drop of a hat. I’ve had enough of this state of palpable fear in the Spanish capital, and want out!

Barbara Baker

9th July 2020 at 2:15 pm

Absolutely Andrew – I am lucky enough to live in a small town where we have free roadside parking and a large free car park behind the 2 supermarkets – we also have no empty shops, diverse shops/businesses , 2 pubs , good selection of cafes/ restaurants. All of which are well- frequented by local people. It is a model fervently defended by our pro-active parish and local councils- so it can be done if the will is there


9th July 2020 at 2:02 pm

Spiked has in the past sought to argue that Fakebook, Twatter and other anti-social media adequately serves the purpose of a public realm. Make up your mind.

Andrew Levens

9th July 2020 at 1:10 pm

Town high streets often have poor and expensive parking, while out of town malls have plentiful and cheap parking. Local councils should see parking as a public service, not a cash cow. It could also help to review rateable values and make out of town sites pay more.

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