Life, Death and Reincarnation: The vicissitudes of the traditional retail high street

Paul Drechsler

    Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstractpeer-review


    Primary Aims/Objectives (300 words)
    Streets have been the preferred location of shops throughout the course of urban history, at least until the nineteenth century when new retail platforms emerged during the Industrial Revolution. Recently, some scholars have argued that the high street can also be thought of as a contested space imbued with multiple layers and meanings. In this respect, the retail high street is conceivably a misnomer, for they are also movement corridors, spaces of commerce and commodity consumption, places of social interaction, and the location of dwellings. Furthermore, while the social dimension of the high street appears to have a continuous history, the commercial setting of the street in the Modern Era has experienced significant fluxes as new fads invariably come to dominate, only to subside as their influence wanes over time. This process, known as creative destruction, a term coined by the renowned economist Joseph Schumpeter in 1942 is driven by entrepreneurial innovation. This disrupts the retail status quo by heralding dramatic changes over time, as in the past two centuries. Creative destruction, a leitmotif of this paper, will be explained by way of an empirical case study of the Subiaco Town Centre in Western Australia.
    With an enviable reputation as the epitome of a thriving high street based centre, Subiaco once attracted custom from a metropolitan-wide catchment. Alas, this reputation has now been seriously compromised; a result of competition from both new entrants into the physical retail landscape, and since the millennium, e-commerce platforms. The end result is a legacy of failed businesses, abandoned shops, and high tenancy churn rates. Compounding this, are the attitudes of avaricious property owners that exacerbate the situation by imposing unsustainable occupancy costs on shop tenants. Whether this marks the death knell of traditional bricks and mortar centres such as Subiaco remains to be seen. Certainly the prognosis is far from perfect and the great challenge for Subiaco will be to undertake measures to improve its resilience to retail disruptors in the future. This paper will suggest that possible solutions to the current retail high street crisis may reside in the past and involve a re-creation of some of the commercial cultures evident in the first half of the twentieth century.
    Theoretical/Conceptual Framework (200 words)
    This paper presents a case study of the retail and business landscape of the main high streets of the Subiaco Town Centre from 1916 to 2016 in a highly graphical form. The study introduces some macro-economic factors underpinning the centre’s development. Disruption brought about by organisational and technological innovation, including the way that creative destruction and innovation diffusion orchestrated spatial and morphological change over time and space will be explained in the presentation.
    The paper will also canvass the proposition that retail geography and planning has been a neglected research area in the past few decades despite retail’s position as a driving force in the national economy. This paucity of definitive scholarship indicates that retail research could benefit from some further academic attention at the tertiary level, especially given retail’s status as a dominant economic and physical entity in the urban landscape. In this respect, a holistic academic approach would be warranted in deference to the multifaceted nature of the physical retail landscape. Such an approach would have to acknowledge the intersection between various spatial disciplines including geography, urban planning and urban design.
    Methodology/Methods (200 words)
    By virtue of its century-long time frame, spatial complexity and demographic context, the case study’s research framework employs multiple methods to determine the spatial and temporal variation of street-based, ground floor retail activity in the Subiaco Town Centre. Data sources were broadly grouped into documents dealing with the life and times in Subiaco including historical cartographic and aerial image resources, plus raw data sources available in the public domain. These were supplemented by contextual analysis of definitive local histories, first-person experiential narratives and heritage studies of Subiaco Town Centre. The research approach utilised longitudinal datasets including post office directories, land use surveys and historical ABS census data. This information was then mapped using ArcMapTM. The objective of the data analysis phase was to provide insights into changes in the nature and composition of business activity of the town centre over a period of one century.
    Key Findings (200 words)
    The paper presents a forensic case study focussing on the anatomy of the retail and business landscape of the Subiaco Town Centre. The presentation will show the principal changes to the spatial morphology of the town centre, including factors and trends that influenced the composition and operation of shops and businesses over the past century, plus threats and challenges to the centre’s ongoing viability. The paper will also demonstrate that the scholarly research agenda on the spatial aspects of retailing in Australia is qualitatively lacking in the geography and planning disciplines. Perhaps looking to the United Kingdom for inspiration might be a good place to start a process of augmenting the body of work on place and consumption in Australia and its interface with spatial planning frameworks at the urban macro-scale. As for the challenges facing the Subiaco Town Centre, this paper will argue that initiatives which increase the centre’s residential population will go a long way to offsetting the diminution of trade evident in the centre.
    Policy Relevance/Implications (200 words).
    From a policy perspective, the paper will suggest that planning agencies have an unfortunate proclivity to rely upon analogic central place theory when dealing with retail networks. Contrastingly, the fact that physical retail is increasingly suffering the ‘slings and arrows’ of digital domination; the digital age seems to be lost on the authors of metropolitan spatial plans. In this context, comprehensively planned shopping centres and activity centres are afforded a policy priority not evident for traditional high street precincts, which are disproportionately threatened by disruptive processes. Contrast this with an often-superficial acknowledgement of the traditional high street platform in high level strategic spatial plans formulated by planning authorities. Much more needs to be done to ensure the ongoing protection of the high street. One way suggested in this paper is for some positive intervention by planning authorities to promote significant increases in residential densities in town centre precincts as a way of ameliorating the all too obvious impacts of digital disruption. This may involve some radical planning intervention such as the establishment or expansion of the existing Subiaco regeneration area, or even a form of BID such as those successfully implemented elsewhere.
    Original languageEnglish
    Number of pages2
    Publication statusPublished - 2019
    EventState of Australian Cities Conference - University of Western Australia, Perth, Australia
    Duration: 3 Dec 20195 Dec 2019


    ConferenceState of Australian Cities Conference
    Abbreviated titleSOAC '19
    Internet address


    Dive into the research topics of 'Life, Death and Reincarnation: The vicissitudes of the traditional retail high street'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

    Cite this