design development sustainability

Traffic falls at out of town shopping centres

This week I’ve been reading Smart Growth, a book about suburban sprawl and how we should be planning higher density settlements built around public transport. And then I had the misfortune of finding myself in Milton Keynes this weekend, where the messages of the book were made painfully obvious.

For those unfamiliar with MK, it is one of Britain’s ‘new towns’. It was laid out in the late sixties, and is one of the few cities in the country to be built on a grid pattern. It was designed entirely with the car in mind, with vast gaps between buildings, and large retail estates that appear to be in the middle of nowhere. If it feels more American than British, it’s because the designer was aiming for a “modified Los Angeles system” (pdf).

It was meant to be a city of the future, but it’s not a sustainable model, and that makes MK one of the key places for new urbanism in Britain. Plans for the town are based around filling in the gaps with higher density ‘city streets’ rather than expanding the grid – and they are passionately opposed, needless to say. But that’s what needs to happen. Long drives to work, to school, to the shops, are going to become impossibly expensive in the years to come.

In fact, I’m writing about it today because it’s already started. Retailers in the UK warned last week that the oil price was affecting business at out-of-town shopping centres. With petrol prices high, shoppers were deciding not to drive out to the big glamorous retail parks, and were shopping on their local high street instead. The average shopper at one of these big malls has travelled 32 miles to get there apparently, and that’s far enough for the fuel price to deter them. Footfall is down an average of 12% in the big centres like Bluewater or Metrocentre.

Bluewater carpark

That’s exactly the kind of trend predicted by movies like The End of Suburbia, authors like James Howard Kunstler, or new urbanism projects like Reburbia. Sprawling suburbias are in for a tough time once the price of oil starts its inexorable rise.

We’re experiencing an oil spike at the moment, so this is probably a temporary phenomenon right now and I expect out of town shopping centres aren’t going to fold overnight. Ultimately though, the writing is on the wall. Either they will need to build bus networks to them, or they will need to close and use those big boxy buildings for something else. Either way, we should stop building more of them.

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