Are microtowns the new High Street?
It begins over a beer. A couple of guys agree to try brewing their own, and when that goes well they want their own brewery. They settle on a silly name, rent a warehouse on a disused industrial estate and within a couple of years have opened a shop, a bar and been joined by an arty florist, a trendy barber, a funky fashion designer and a gourmet hot dog stand. And so a Microtown is born, and despite a decade of urban doom and gloom these hipstery green shoots are popping up right across the planet as an alternative to the homogenised High Street.
Governments of all shades, local authorities, as well as private landlords, have failed our communities. They continue to milk retail for every last drop in spite of the biggest global financial crisis in history. They act as if nothing has changed and that eventually everything will return to how it once was. It won’t.
Relentless rents, rates, taxes and parking penalties are how they pay respect to those that fed them when times were good. Worse, they refuse to acknowledge that this is a new age, the digital age, where the gentlest swipe of a thumb sees your groceries delivered, your washing machine replaced. Even our richest, busiest town centres are locked in a state of stasis, where only ubiquitous chain-stores are willing to invest. And too many of these are clinging on simply because they must be seen to be there.
If you were lucky, your urban regeneration was taken care of by Westfield, Land Securities or Lendlease, who stitched your town centre together with their polished marble and glazed roofs. But even here, with all this shiny shopping centre packaging, it’s hard to attract independent brands that might bring something fresh to the mix. So, with some notable exceptions, an enormous number of our city centres are either decimated, dying or just plain dull.
Thankfully, nature has a way of responding to disaster. Razed forests become fertile ground for new shrubs.
The term ‘microtown’ was originally coined to describe a place that had bled to near-death because its citizens abandoned it to work elsewhere, so that it became a tiny, broken version of its former self; a kind of pre-ghost town. I’ve hijacked the term to describe something far more significant – the nuclei that is the genesis of new communities.
Those edge of town micro-brewers and their chums are actually pioneers building our future, re-awakening our shopping streets, and in the process, redefining retail itself. They have already shifted the centre of gravity away from the mediocrity at the heart of so many towns, and rest assured the microtown movement will gather momentum as other young, retail enthusiasts join the fun.
Let me take you to a few of my favourite microtowns around the world that I’ve visited in the last year, starting with a stellar example in New Zealand’s Auckland.
City Works Depot, Auckland, New Zealand
Despite being surrounded by Hobbitesque hills and lakes, Auckland city centre is a pitiful mess, a tatty selection of bewildered brands and 1980s fascias, huddled around a mundane and moribund department store. But a few hundred yards from the centre, City Works Depot (pictured, above) is a desperately needed breath of fresh air.
The old Auckland Council Workshops are now home to microbrewery and bar, Brothers Beer, with 18 beers on tap, a pizza oven and a big squishy sofa; Foodtruck Garage, which began life as a TV series peddling healthier fast food; the fabulous Odettes, where I had one of the best meals in a very long time straight from their wood-fired oven; as well as the Botanist cafe and florist, Scratch Bakers, Three Beans Roastery coffee, and Best Ugly, for Montreal style, wood-fired bagels. This scruffy little industrial estate puts Auckland’s town centre to shame.
Raleigh Warehouse District, Raleigh, North Carolina
Similar Auckland’s City Works Depot, Raleigh’s Warehouse District is an insignificant row of industrial sheds and old railway depots alongside a rather useful car park (shock horror) that’s become the coolest spot in town. The stars here are the Videri Chocolate factory for tours and tastings; the Raleigh Denim factory (watch your jeans being made); Tasty Beverage, a craft beer general store & bar; as well as Crank Arm Brewery, The Flying Saucer Draught Emporium (there’s a theme emerging) and The Pit Authentic Barbecue.
And before you think there’s a gender bias here, all the customers I saw at the bar in Tasty were female, millennials too, for that matter. These girls clearly have a thing for ‘authentic’ beer and have left the Miller Lite to the middle aged men. (Miller has targeted men for 50 years and must feel they’re missing out now).
Central Park, Sydney
Look, Sydney is a beautiful city. The setting, the climate and the relentless optimism all make for a world-class city, no doubt. But the retail? Well, most of it feels like 1980s Birmingham – lots of cheesy shoe shops and ‘boutiques’ with dated mannequins in the window.
Okay, so I’m being a tad cruel here. But until Westfield rebuilt its epicentre in 2010, they’d never seen a contemporary shop-fit or a sign that wasn’t back illuminated. That’s why the new Central Park development, just 10 minutes south of Sydney’s city centre, is so uplifting. Far from being the creation of a beardy, beer-entrepreneur, this is a big money scheme from Greencliff, Frasers Property and Sekisui House. Last September, on opening day, I was privileged enough to be taken on a personal tour by the top man, Dr Stanley Quek.
A gentle soul, he proudly showed me the new park, Halo, its giant kinetic sculpture; the beautiful Jean Nouvel designed apartments behind a living wall; the cantilevered sun-reflector or ‘heliostat’ that directs light into the atrium of the shopping centre; the reborn pub and brewery that’s become The Old Clare Hotel with rooftop lido, Jason Atherton’s gorgeous new restaurant, Kensington Street Social (his first Sydney foray); and; perhaps best of all, the tiny, one-up, one-down, workmen’s cottages that he’s turned into galleries, independent shops and cafes.
Here is a developer who understands what it takes to build a community – a man who knows that authentic retail must always be at its heart.
So you see, you can’t kill community, though local government has done a decent job in trying. As I’ve said a thousand times, retail is the lifeblood of our communities. And if town centres remain frigid to the oxygen of innovation, then bright young retail entrepreneurs will set up shop elsewhere.
Howard Saunders is a retail futurist and international speaker. For more, email email@example.com.