Small Businesses and Thriving City Centres
While Britain certainly has its share of chain stores and shopping malls (that seem the same no matter where you are) it is the old shopping centres, markets and small business owners that make shopping here an enjoyable experience.
Exploring the narrow streets and 'snickle ways' of York, Hull and Beverley has been full of surprises as the most amazing small businesses appeared before my eyes. Many exist in shops that are so small they barely hold more than a couple of customers at a time and some that extend through several stories of creaking wooden staircases.
Market squares are often full of colourful stalls selling everything from hats to olives and the same spaces have been used for this purpose for over 1000 years.
New Zealand will never have streets that could compete with the character of old Britain and our earthquake regulations are causing the loss of many of our old shop frontages, but it may be possible to develop a resurgence of small local enterprises.
Invercargill is in the process of redeveloping the central business area and the process has been a little haphazard and has not been able to provide a vision of a centre that has excited and inspired local rate payers and businesses. If people are to be pulled away from the large chain stores on the outskirts then there has to be a combination of inspired town planning and business innovation to attract people.
It has been disappointing that the sort of consultation and collaboration that could have been effective hasn't occurred and although a market area has been provided in the plan, there has been little meaningful communication between our farmers' market and the council. The market place, as set out in the plan, is not likely to be used by our market as it does not meet our needs and is not nearly as good as our present site.
Rather than developing a central gathering area that serves a number of purposes the Invercargill City Council has decided to keep the existing Wachner Place (which has never functioned well as a centre) and develop another area that is more central. Neither space will function as a gathering point and neither will do much to encourage community events or to support surrounding retailers.
Old towns in Britain were established in a time when markets and community hubs were important and cars had not been invented. It seems to me that in having to provide ease of access and parking for cars we have lost the ability to see how city centres can operate and function without them and create far more interesting environments for both retailers and communities as a whole.
We also seem to have forgotten how trees, rivers and green spaces can enhance an urban environment. Our wide Invercargill streets are very car friendly but they have made the town appear more sterile and less people friendly. We could learn much about how we can live better in a modern world by remembering what works well in old English towns and what could make an attractive but functional city.