The decimation of retail and the rise of the microtown

Retail futurist Howard Saunders travels the world in search of inspiration. Here, he talks about urban design, high streets, alternative retail communities - and shares some strongly-worded opinions about Auckland's city centre.

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, not quite the ancient old oaks we grew up with and believed were immortal, but new plants that bring fresh colour for a different age.

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 to you half a dozen of my favourite microtowns that I visited in the last year.


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 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, 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 the town centre to shame.



Raleigh Warehouse District, Raleigh, North Carolina

Similar to CWD above, 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, 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 fifty years and must feel they’re missing out now).

Cass Corridor, Detroit

Although it’s now being marketed as Woodward Square (sounds too posh, will never catch on) the vibe here is still punk-bohemian even though in 2013 Shinola landed right opposite the Motor City Brewing Works to help smarten things up. In 2015 in a move that comes directly from cool heaven, Detroit born Jack White (of the White Stripes) set up shop next door. And guess what his Third Man Records label is doing here? Pressing vinyl. I know, you couldn’t make it up. Read more about my thoughts on Detroit here: www.22and5.com/made-in-detroit

Mission, San Francisco

With a long and rich history of art, music and food, Mission’s rebirth is much more mature than the other districts I visited. Many would say that gentrification has gone a step too far, bringing high rents and the wrong sorts to the neighbourhood. But what impressed me so much was the beautifully elegant retail eco-system that has emerged. The hipster baker, Craftsman & Wolves, bakes bread for Mission Cheese, the cheese and wine bar next door. Dandelion Chocolate, the small batch factory, sells coffee from beans supplied by Four Barrels just up the road. In turn, Four Barrels uses Dandelion chocolate. Several of the stores run their deliveries on bikes built by Mission Bike. If you haven’t heard of Trumpton, Google it. The collaborative culture here is a heartwarming reminder that good retail is all about community.

Schanze, Hamburg

Hamburg is such an elegant city. I spent three days walking it and I can honestly say that every square meter has been thoroughly thought through and precisely planned; every facade elegantly up-lit, every sign hangs squarely in an appropriately tasteful font. The problem is, it’s boring. The city centre has no nooks and crannies, no quirky coffee bars or cafes hidden down lanes asking to be explored. Presumably this is why celebrity chef Tim Malzer set up his Bullerei restaurant on the edge of town, to escape the tidiness. It’s not like he couldn’t afford a flash restaurant with a lovely up-lit stone facade overlooking one of the canals, but it’s just not hip hanging out with Hugo Boss and Massimo Dutti. Sometimes it takes a single entrepreneur to kickstart an alternative town centre, and thank ‘Gott’ he did. As soon as I stepped into his converted abattoir (yes, really) I could see this was where all the beautiful people had been hiding. (I’d wondered why I hadn’t seen any) The Bullerei restaurant is clearly the main attraction but the area is developing fast and there are plenty of other things to enjoy, like the Spanish wine store, The Burger Lab, Cafe Elbgold with its coffee roastery and shop, and of course, Altes Madchen, a glorious brewhouse and beerhall inside an old warehouse, serving burgers, brisket and, yes, craft beer.

The Funk Zone, Santa Barbara, California

Santa Barbara isn’t a place that looks like it’s struggling. No this is not an Auckland or a Detroit. The streets here are lined with palm trees and giant magenta flowers that make a pretty poor attempt at screening the sprawling haciendas that oversee the ocean. Like Hamburg, the town centre is almost perfect. In fact, the architecture is so ridiculously cute that walking up State Street feels like you’re in an outdoor shopping mall, safe in the ubiquity you’d expect from a glamorous holiday spot. But if you want somewhere a little edgier head just east of State Street to what is cringingly known as the Funk Zone. The heart of the zone is The Lark, a signature restaurant in a disused fish market, serving ultra trendy local dishes on long communal tables raised from the stone floor by rusty reclaimed radiators. Peek through the window behind the bar for a glimpse of the stunning Wine Collective rooms, for tasting and celebrating an endless range of local wines. Across the yard is a hip pizza place, Lucky Penny, as well as Le Marchands, the wine bar and merchant. Helena Avenue, a trendy artisan bakery is opening soon too. All of the above were created by Acme Ventures, a clever bunch of Barbarians who know what people want, and that they won’t find it on State Street. Alongside the Acme brands there are other restaurants, coffee shops, the Surf Museum (I have no idea) and enough galleries to satiate the most pretentiously arty appetite. Most memorable of all is the magnificent Guitar Bar where they actually encourage you just to hang out. It’s so obvious this is where the action is and, by contrast, how staid and stuck in the nineties the town centre has become.

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 1980’s Birmingham, lots of cheesy shoe shops and ‘boutiques’ with dated mannequins in the window. Ok, so I’m being cruel, 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 ten minutes south of the 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.

This story originally appeared on Howard Saunders' blog, 22and5.