Resilience Reflection #18: End-of-year shopping

In this week's issue of Resilience Reflections, Mark Brussel appeals for a return to offline shopping to revitalize and strengthen resilience in urban centres. 

Recognising the urgent need to respond to rapid societal and environmental change, resilience is one of the University of Twente’s spearheads. As an academic institution, we have a role to play in strengthening the resilience of the social, technological and environmental systems that support us. In this regular series by the Resilience@UT and  4TU Resilience Engineering programmes, researchers share their personal reflections on current events and trends that impact our daily lives, exploring their implications for resilience. The opinions expressed in these articles are those of each individual author.    

End-of-year shopping and the resilience of our inner cities 

It’s that time of year again! Many Dutch families have just celebrated Saint Nicholas Day (December 5th, traditionally the peak of toy sales in the Netherlands) and are preparing for the ever-larger festivities of Christmas.  

How does this relate to resilience? Urban resilience is often discussed in relation to water extremes, heat, energy and so on. Still, cities are also challenged to keep their socio-economic and culturally important centres attractive, liveable and lively. A good measure of this is how busy and attractive the shopping districts of cities are.  

Not so long ago (15 years or so), if you visited a city centre in the Netherlands in December, the streets would be so crowded you could hardly move. Nowadays, cities are much less busy and vibrant. They have had to deal with several threats: the aftermath of the economic crisis of 2008, the emergence of online shopping and the covid pandemic. All these have changed the nature of our inner cities.  

Of these threats, online shopping has probably had the biggest impact. Currently, one-third of all shopping expenditures in the Netherlands are done online. On top of this, the pandemic has also influenced the habits of people, who are now used to ordering more online. City centres have not yet bounced back to pre-corona times in terms of retail demand and the number of visitors to shopping districts.  

Many department stores have disappeared, but so have small local shops (e.g. in clothing, books or sporting goods). The result has been an increase in vacant retail space and many bankruptcies and restarts. This is unfortunate, as even a relatively small number of vacant shops can have a very detrimental effect on how you experience an inner city.  

How can cities in the Netherlands become more resilient against such threats? There is quite some variety in the ways in which cities try to cope, with different degrees of success. Cities like Roermond and Sittard are struggling with some 25 % of all retail space in their inner city empty. Other cities like Deventer and Haarlem have been able to counter this downward trend and have regained their vibrant nature.  

These more successful cities have applied a varied mix of instruments, their main philosophy being that city centres are great places to visit and linger in because there are always things happening. And when people stick around, they may also make purchases. In these cities, we see an increase in cultural events, restaurants, bars and so forth. Also, retailers themselves have realized this and offer more pleasant and complete “experiential” environments for shopping. In addition to this, we see an increase in second-hand clothing, upcycled products and repair shops, contributing to a circular economy.  

There is still much more to be done, but you can help! If you plan to do Christmas shopping and want to keep your city vibrant, get out of your chair and go to a real shop!  

About the Author

Mark Brussel is a lecturer in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning and Geo-Information Management. He specialises in the application of GIS in urban infrastructure systems and has specific expertise in spatial analytical methods addressing questions of equitable and sustainable infrastructure provision in urban areas. 


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