Sunday, March 15, 2009

World-class city or grim ghost town?

By Tyler Brûlé

in Financial Times, 7 March 2009

If the past few weeks have been devoted to dropping in on cities up and down the length of Asia, then this one has seen me stick closer to home. On Monday I jumped on the Eurostar to Brussels and found myself going through what’s become a ritual task of rethinking and redesigning the experience.

As I passed through the X-ray machine at St Pancras International, questions raced along the ridge of my forehead. Why does this rail service need a business lounge? Why are there silly airline-style cut-off times? Surely the joy of rail travel is being able to walk down the platform just as the doors close? Why am I paying for a mediocre meal when it would be better to have a well-stocked trolley or a proper dining car? And what about those seats? They were uncomfortable when the service was launched and they haven’t been updated, save for new upholstery.

At Brussels Midi rail terminal a fresh set of questions started swirling around. Who the hell designed this facility? (It’s poorly signed. Traffic flow is dreadful. And the lighting is cold and far too dim.) Who thought it acceptable to install just two bank machines for a major transport hub? And who were the contractors? Tiles were coming off the floor and the whole place offered a series of first impressions that suggested Belgium’s not that interested in warm welcomes and isn’t too fussed about what visitors might think about the place. Departure from the city’s airport five hours later reinforces this message with an equally complicated terminal layout. I was left with a set of impressions that made me wonder if it might not be time to review whether this is the most appropriate home for the EU.

On Wednesday I descended into Lisbon and had one of those final approaches in crosswinds that had me pining for the Eurostar. Anyone who had to fly in and out of the Portuguese capital midweek will agree it was not the airport’s finest hour, though I did step off the aircraft with renewed respect for Portuguese pilots and their abilities to land an aircraft sideways in fresh Atlantic gusts. The parade of “non-brand” enterprises lining the boulevards was a curious and refreshing sight. Of all the capitals in the old EU, Lisbon is perhaps home to the lowest number of multinational retail brands. Sure, there are branches of Zara and El Corte Inglés but the majority of the shops are local, family-owned enterprises that are so frozen in time they almost seem modern. And indeed many of them are. Before I left London I took stock of a couple of its main shopping streets and soon found myself a little depressed by the number of shuttered store-fronts, “closing down” and “final reduction” signs and the number of shop spaces that have real-estate broker signs fixed on the front that are just longing for someone to dial the numbers listed and make an offer.

Perhaps one of the most dramatic areas is in west London’s Notting Hill, where in certain stretches it seems like every second shop has closed for business and you get the feeling that it would only take a few more high-profile closures and the whole area could easily capsize. Over the past weeks government agencies and the odd think-tank have been spelling out the dangers of ghost-town Britain (you can quite easily insert Australia, Canada or the US here as well).

Apparently, whole town centres are teetering on the brink of collapse and countless neighbourhoods could soon tip from being pleasant zones of commerce to derelict no-go areas. Unfortunately, much of the discussion concerning the perils of the empty store-front epidemic and the potential solutions is coming too late. For too long, landlords have been happy to see their once interesting neighbourhoods fill with deep-pocketed chain stores that bring a more transient workforce (gone are the locals who might remember you if you go in every day), façades that are unsympathetic to the local look, and with the cash to take over a series of spaces and turn them into one superstore. Many local communities up and down the country have seen the arrival of national brands as a sign of progress and have ushered them in with much fanfare only to see them undercut Mom-and-Pop shops and then pack up for greener pastures when a better rent or location offer comes along. With the collapse of a host of high street names, landlords and local authorities are wondering if all those mediocre chain stores were such a good idea. As empty retail blocks become magnets for nasty, idle urchins, some councils are thinking it might be clever to use the empty spaces for youth centres. This is a bad idea as it does nothing to solve the bigger issue of bringing locally owned businesses back to the community, and gives the badly-behaved heating and a roof over their hoodies.

Which brings me back to Lisbon. Portugal may not be the biggest exporter of international brand names but it should work hard to preserve its strong culture of family-owned and operated businesses. This binds together communities and makes the city more interesting for visitors.

Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle

Foto: Baixa, «World-class historic center or grim ghost town»? Largo da Boa Hora

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