On a recent swing through a particular Mitteleuropean capital I had an hour between meetings to take a quick tour around a recently revitalised part of the city. It was a late summer morning and there was a sense that the rhythm of the place had been recalibrated to accommodate the influx of tourists and the locals who had fled to nearby alpine hideaways or the beaches and coves of the Adriatic. The major cultural and historical sites were swarmed by visitors while the cafés and lunch spots where business folk might frequent were closed for the summer break.
Nevertheless the streets were lively, the shops busy and there was a friendly, breezy buzz about the place. As I did my regular circuit to visit a favourite bakery and nearby foodhall I took a small detour to look at a group of buildings that had been spruced up and let to a crop of luxury tenants.
The 18th-century structures had been given a scrub down, so much so that they were almost too white and dazzling in the late morning sun. It looked like there were some apartments on the upper storeys while the lighting fixtures on the floors below suggested offices. At street level the logos above the display windows and doorframes were a familiar mix of companies that tend to congregate on the world’s premium thoroughfares; inside, men with earpieces and shiny suits had the same burly builds you find in most jewellery shops around the world and on the selling floors beyond there wasn’t a customer in sight. Indeed, the entire precinct was empty.
As I waited for my colleague I tried to find a position that would allow me to observe the pedestrian traffic flow and establish why these well-stocked streets were all but dead. Why were hundreds of people crowded into one café while the equally nice operation across the way was a sea of empty seats? What had the developers, architects and city-planners left out of the scheme that had made it a pricey-looking wasteland?
After a couple of minutes watching people negotiate the area I started to come up with a checklist. The first thing that was missing was shade and shelter. It wasn’t a particularly hot day but there was plenty of sun and all the polished stone and new glazing made it look like a parched canyon. Where were the awnings? Where was the shady side of the street?
On closer inspection I also noticed a distinct lack of greenery. There were a couple of over-groomed shrubs in some matte steel planters and some sharp-looking benches but otherwise there wasn’t anywhere that would beckon a shopper to sit down and take a phone call or a shopkeeper to sit back and smoke a cigarette. Was this deliberate? Make everything look pruned and perfect and people will duck into the shops rather than mingle on the street? If this was the strategy it clearly wasn’t working.
On the flight back to London later that day I thought about the opportunity lost and was staggered that a bit of neighbourhood-building in one of Europe’s grandest capitals could go so wrong. I pulled out my notebook somewhere over Belgium and jotted down the fixes.
First, no one likes to feel exposed yet time and again new developments do their best to leave people out in the open. A smarter scheme would have incorporated proper awnings combined with a canopy of trees and more free-flowing planting. Second, the retail mix falls into the trap of zoning too many of the same type of business together. For sure luxury-goods companies enjoy the safety of numbers and being adjacent to like-minded brands but there needs to be a balance. On a street near monocle’s HQ the owners of the estate have decided to create a street of restaurants, which is perfect if you can’t get a seat and need to table-hop but is also too unilateral an approach for building communities.
Third, landlords and leasing companies need to learn to mix it up more and go beyond the safe bet. All those luxury-goods shops would have benefited from a new multibrand with local companies offering their wares rather than a predictable collection of marques. And finally, build shops to scale. There’s simply too much plus-sized retail on the market and that means tenants are often overstretched when it comes to delivering a compelling, attractive fit-out.
If you’re looking for a few cues to refresh your high street or a lacklustre mall you might want to check out what’s happening in Portland, Oregon (see page 87), sample the smaller retailers of Buenos Aires in our Retail Safari (see page 250) and touch down in Tokyo for some interiors advice (see page 212). We’ll be on a safari of our own this autumn as our next round of books hits the shelves and we look forward to seeing you in Dubai, Stuttgart, Lausanne, Zürich, Toronto and at least seven other cities.
As ever, send all queries and requests to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you for your support.
For more from our editor in chief, read his column in the ‘FT Weekend’.