A tale of two (or more) cities: Neighbourhood rejuvenation through sustainable retailing and marketing strategy


In recent years retailing has been in a deep crisis globally. Scores of independent shops and chain stores close down every year, resulting in lost jobs and revenues for the local communities and leaving empty and desolated units across the streets of towns and cities (The Guardian, 2018). According to a recent report by Credit Suisse (2018), by 2022 the 25% of the United States shopping malls will be out of business. This prediction follows a series of negative trends regarding retail closures in the recent years, not only in North America but also in many European countries (Forbes, 2018). The obsolescence of retail infrastructure, the change in consumers demand, and the advent of online retailers are few factors responsible for this decline (Hughes and Jackson, 2015). In addition to the negative effects such closings have on the local economy, they affect the identity of the communities who congregate at the shopping areas and socialize there (Oldenburg, 1999). This project focuses on the effects that the closure of retail spaces has on both the individual and collective identity of the people who consume these spaces as places to shop as well as to socialize (Deener, 2007; Hyra, 2008; Zukin et al., 2009).

The project will involve a mix of methodologies, implementing both archival and survey research. Archival research will involve the analysis the relevant literature on the effect of urban rejuvenation including the databases at a national and at local levels over the last few decades. A vast array of secondary data will be considered to assess the economic and social evolution of the neighbourhoods and to track potential gentrification markers (such as change in the key demographic of the inhabitants, change of use of specific micro-locations for different uses, spikes in real estate prices, etc.). At the same time, a large survey will be performed to explore the attitudes and values regarding the retail landscape of targeted areas.

The objectives of our project are threefold:

  1. To develop a theoretical understanding of the phenomena related to neighbourhood rejuvenation and its impact on the economic, social, and cultural development of cities.
  2. To undertake an empirical analysis of the perception individuals have on retailing landscape evolution through the use of an exploratory large survey with real consumers in different areas.
  3. To establish contacts and potential partnerships with policy makers in the domain of urban planning and commercial development of cities.

Previous research has shown that the shops on high streets or in malls--similar to the marketplace of the Middle Ages--constitute the gathering place for individuals to meet and to socialize. However, due to the rise of online shopping, where everything is a click away from the consumer, and due to the lack of innovation in ‘physical’ retailing, such social transactions among individuals are nowadays increasingly sporadic. Coupled with this social vacuum, the empty units on the streets contribute in a general degradation of the neighbourhoods’ environment. This dilapidation of public and private spaces has been linked to the tendency of further sullying the urban environment in the neglected neighbourhoods. Scholars named this phenomenon the ‘broken windows theory’. The theory postulates that physical disorder in a neighbourhood (e.g. vacant buildings, broken windows, abandoned vehicles, vacant lots filled with trash) may consequently attract illegal and criminal practices such as drug dealing, prostitution, robbery to name a few, triggering an escalating process that contributes to the area degradation even further. This process may affect the public perception of the certain areas of the city that, as a result, become labelled as unsafe and therefore to be avoided. The communities living in these areas may end up being marginalized and stigmatized, affecting individuals’ wellbeing and, sometimes, fuelling violent reactions.

Policy makers have attempted to reduce the broken window effect by implementing intervention plans aimed at restructuring the derelict neighbourhoods. These policies included, together with the restructuring of the housing plans, the introduction of new community centres, public spaces (such as libraries and sports halls), and retailing outlets.

However, the relatively inexpensive price of the properties in impoverished neighbourhoods may also lead to speculation and then to the transformation of these spaces into different kinds of residential and commercial units. The buyers and renters targeted with these newly created spaces usually belong to upper social classes than the ones who constitute the nucleus of the original neighbourhood community. This process is commonly referred to as ‘neighbourhood gentrification’ (Smith, 2005) and it has been shown to have a great impact on the authentic identity of the local communities. The displacement of individuals to other neighbourhoods in the suburbs due to unaffordable rents (or real estate prices), the conflict between the ‘original’ inhabitants and the ‘newcomers’, and the loss of social diversity in the communities are few of the negative effects that the gentrification process triggers (Atkinson and Bridge, 2004; Lees, Slater, And Wyly, 2008).

Starting from the dilemma whether or not a rejuvenation without gentrification is possible, this project aims at contributing by investigating how marketing can play a role in this debate. While commercial rejuvenation has been proven to help neighbourhoods, could it be performed in a more sustainable way? Could certain retailing outlets provide a better fit than others in retaining local communities? For example: could experience based outlets (where cultural and social events meet the shopping transactions) be more successful than traditional shops? Could outlets that are more embedded in the heritage of the original community and managed by individuals from the community play a pivotal role in preserving the life of the neighbourhood? Is there a commercially viable possibility for an ‘identity based’ retailing tailored to the authentic essence and the values of the community?