Retail Week – feature writing

I was commissioned to write an in-depth piece about shops and the 15-minute city for the trade magazine Retail Week.

Analysis: Shops and the 15-minute city – how to win in a hyper-local world

By Manfreda Cavazza – 15 April 2021

As retailers look ahead to a post-Covid reality, could the French concept of a 15-minute city provide a recipe for success in the UK?  

  • The 15-minute city model has been given a boost thanks to the recent trend for hyper-localism 
  • Online will still have a place in any UK incarnation says property developer Nick Searl, who predicts “an increase in the interaction between online and physical retail”
  • Developments at London’s Brent Cross and Canada Water provide a glimpse of this concept in action 
  • Amazon, John Lewis and Co-op are among the retailers adapting to changing trends in consumer behaviour with new store formats and a greater focus on click and collect 

Hyper-localism has been a silver lining of lockdown for many. Forced to stay at home for months on end, many of us have fallen back in love with our local community. We turned our kitchens into offices, relied on our local shops like never before and replaced our gym sessions with walking, running and cycling outside.

A survey commissioned by property development firm Argent Related and conducted by insight agency Copa found that close to 60% of UK residents agreed that lockdown had enhanced their love of their immediate area.

This is a backdrop that begs the question of how shoppers’ relationships with and expectations of their local communities will change post-Covid – and one that has fuelled a resurgence in the urban planning model of the 15-minute city.

The question is, will this trend survive post-pandemic? And can retailers benefit?

What is a 15-minute city?

The principles of the 15-minute town are simple: the places where you work, shop, play and learn should all be within a 15-minute walk or cycle from where you live.

It’s the brainchild of Carlos Moreno, a scientific director and professor at the University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, who created it in response to the climate crisis. 

Moreno has been working on the concept for many years, but he says Covid-19 has rapidly kickstarted the trend toward hyper-localism, putting the 15-minute city on the agenda of many metropolitan areas worldwide.

Portland, Madrid, Milan and Melbourne are some of the cities that have launched urban planning developments linked to the concept in recent years.

“We need to place the human at the heart of the neighbourhood again. We’ve seen a shift towards digital and this is damaging our communities”

Carlos Moreno, University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne

Most recently Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, made the 15-minute city the centrepiece of her successful 2020 re-election campaign, outlining four major principles: proximity, diversity, density and ubiquity.

Above all, the aim was to create what she calls “a city of proximities” – not only between structures, but also people.

“We need to place the human at the heart of the neighbourhood again. We’ve seen an increase in un-human behaviour, a shift towards digital, and this is damaging our communities,” explains Moreno.

A sense of British nostalgia

So, could the 15-minute city take off in the UK?

While the term itself is relatively new for consumers, Argent Related partner Nick Searl points out that the concept harks back to the days before out-of-town retail took off. 

“When I was a child, the 15-minute city was the norm: I would walk to school, there was a doctor’s, a grocery store, a butcher and a bakery,” he says. “It was all local and we knew the shopkeepers. 

“What has happened in the last 40 years is that we’ve created zones where certain things happen. We’ve been working in one place, living in another, shopping ‘out of town’ and attending cultural events at large-scale venues – and we’ve been driving between them all. Thankfully, this seems to be going into reverse.” 

Argent Related is leading the development of Brent Cross Town in north London. The 180-acre scheme, thought to be one of the largest in the UK, aims to be a 15-minute town that will “contribute to London’s green economic recovery with sustainability, health and wellbeing and a powerful sense of neighbourliness at its core”. 

“We’re trying to create a town that delivers two things: it needs to offer easy access to your daily needs, but also it needs to reinforce your bonds with your community,” says Searl, who is confident that demand for schemes like this will only rise post-pandemic.

“More and more, people are talking about their quality of life. I think we were moving in this direction already; the pandemic has just rocketed everything forward. It has opened people’s eyes to the opportunities that were in front of them.”

Shopping in the 15-minute city

Moreno’s vision of the 15-minute city does not leave a lot of room for online deliveries, which he says are at odds with the concept due to driving up levels of local traffic.

However, the general consensus among retailers and property developers is that this is not realistic for the UK consumer, for whom online retail has become a lifeline and an increasingly normalised way of shopping during the pandemic.

Searl says online will have an important role in the 15-minute city being developed in Brent Cross.

“We’re going to see an increase in the interaction between online and physical retail. Some shops might be smaller, but they will be more creative spaces that provide experience and personal connection with brands and what they offer.

“We may well see an evolution of click and collect, and retailers being entrepreneurial and showcasing their range in shops to drive online purchases at a later date.”

Argent’s survey found that the top five amenities people wanted in their 15-minute town were a supermarket, transport connections, natural green space, parks and restaurants.

With this in mind, there are some UK retailers that by virtue of their size, existing locations and online prowess are better placed than others to fit into the 15-minute city if the concept were to catch on more widely in the UK.

British Land’s head of real estate Darren Richards cites Amazon as a prime example of a retailer tapping into the trend of hyper-localism: it recently opened its first contactless grocery store in the UK at the Ealing Broadway shopping centre, one of British Land’s mixed-use London assets.

As well as providing a convenient way to buy food without having to queue up to pay at a till, Amazon’s Fresh concept in the UK offers shoppers the chance to collect and return other items ordered from Amazon free of charge, allowing them a local portal to its broader catalogue.

Similarly, Co-op offers click-and-collect services for department store chain John Lewis so shoppers can order a wider range of products for collection in their local area.

Co-op chief executive Steve Murrells says a greater focus on hyper-localism, combined with extending the grocer’s online reach in communities, will inform the retailer’s opening strategy going forward.

“Our store opening strategy is very responsive already to changing trends in consumer behaviour,” he says.

“I think people will go back to a much more hybrid way of living and working, with more of a focus on localism, and we want the balance of our stores to reflect those changes”

Steve Murrells, Co-op

“We’re already looking to increase our physical store estate and the number of stores that serve our online delivery model, which is already giving us a much greater reach than from our stores alone.

“But we’re changing the strategy, and looking at it through the lens of putting stores down that give us a much wider reach, both physical and online, for where people are living and working.

“We still see opportunities in urban stores and in transit locations, but their usage will be changed by the pandemic. As the pandemic begins to end, I think people will go back to a much more hybrid way of living and working, with more of a focus on localism, and we want the balance of our stores to reflect those changes.”

British Land’s Emma Cariaga, who is joint head of a redevelopment at London’s Canada Water, says she sees an opportunity for what she calls ‘functional retail’ in the 15-minute city: shops that deliver services that are impossible to deliver online, such as hairdressers, beauty salons, dry-cleaners and other small shops.

Moreno says there are opportunities for retailers who are adaptable and creative. High street retail shops could be repurposed into multi-use spaces.

A fashion store, for instance, could be a cafe in the morning, sell clothes during the day and then turn into a cultural space for art exhibitions in the evening.

This is a concept that John Lewis is exploring with the development of its more localised, small-format concept. The format, set to be unveiled later this year, has been adapted in response to customers saying they wanted more local access to John Lewis branches.

Executive director Pippa Wicks says the branches will focus on newness and adaptability, so they could feasibly be dedicated to selling by day but also host events in the evenings.

Logistical legwork

Pandemic aside, one of the many hurdles retailers face is the gentrification of city centres. Many retailers are simply priced out of inner-city locations.

In Paris, local retailers have benefited from government support, which has made the concept of the 15-minute city a more attainable option. 

Semaest is a company financed by the Paris city council with a goal to regenerate neighbourhoods in the French capital. The company purchases vacant shops, renovates them and rents them at the lowest possible market price to innovative new commercial concepts or helps established businesses survive. 

There are similar schemes in the UK: British Land, in partnership with Southwark Council, is offering discounted rent levels for 10 years at its Canada Water development to support local retailers. 

Although areas like Canada Water and Brent Cross have bought into the concept of the 15-minute city, Richards believes logistical challenges will make rolling out this concept more widely challenging for urban planners.

“Retro-fitting British towns and cities into a mosaic of 15-minute zones, like a patchwork quilt, is a lovely idea, but it’s unrealistic that it’s going to play out like that, given the level of complexity,” says Richards.

He agrees that the concept of the 15-minute city could be one of the main guiding principles of urban planning, especially when it comes to new developments, but it will only work if there is support from local authorities.

Driving localism through data

Richards is also sceptical about the prospect that localism will be a panacea for the battered British high street. Indeed, British Land, which owns more than 30 retail parks, remains bullish about this out-of-town format.

Richards adds: “As always, the locations of physical retail will be driven by consumer demand and what people want is convenience. Retail parks are convenient, compatible with online and increasingly sustainable if you think about the rise in use of electric cars.”

Superdry chairman Peter Williams echoes this view. ”From a consumer point of view, I can see the appeal of hyper-localism. We have an emotional desire for our local area to be a thriving place,” he says.

“But when you think about what’s on the agenda in any boardroom of a retail business, it’s all about ensuring you have a tight store estate and ensuring your website is functioning well to make the most of the surge in online shopping. The economic pressure is real.”

While the concept of the 15-minute city may not take off wholesale across the UK as a whole, Savills’ national head of retail planning Jeremy Hinds says retailers should take lessons from the rise of hyper-localism in the last year to adapt their offer in each area they operate in.

“The mantra used to be location, location, location. Now it’s data, data, data”

Jeremy Hinds, Savills 

Data will play an important part: retailers can use tech to analyse their customer base in specific areas and then stock those shops accordingly. 

“The challenge for retailers who are in towns is to reorientate what retail is,” he says. “If retailers just keep offering the same product, regardless of where the shop is located, they will struggle. 

“It’s not just about proximity – it’s about providing specific needs. There is plenty of tech out there that can help retailers determine what customers want. The mantra used to be location, location, location. Now it’s data, data, data.” 

As ever, the job of a good retailer is to listen to customers and give them what they want. It seems that convenience is always going to be the top priority and the 15-minute city delivers on that front.

However, retailers can still respond to consumer needs without adhering to the 15-minute model. The key is to adapt.

CASE STUDY: Brent Cross Town

Brent Cross Town in north London is a £5bn development run in partnership between Barnet Council and Argent Related. It aims to be more than just a dormitory area of London.

The development will include 50 acres of green parks and playing fields, 3 million sq ft of commercial office space, 6,700 new homes and student housing, retail, leisure and hospitality offerings.

It aims to create a place where people can live, work, visit and play without travelling for further than 15 minutes. 

Key highlights:

  • It will be a net-zero carbon town by 2030. This will be achieved by driving down the embodied carbon in buildings and infrastructure, reducing the carbon used in energy supply and offsetting the remainder. 
  • The development will include a new high street, local shops, restaurants, services, workspace and community spaces.
  • The town centre will connect to King’s Cross in 12 minutes via the new Brent Cross West station, to be completed by 2022. 
  • The town will include new walking and cycle routes to connect the development with existing communities.
Brent Cross 15 minute city mock up
How the Brent Cross Town development will look 

CASE STUDY: Canada Water

The Canada Water development is a partnership between British Land, Southwark Council and the local community to create a new town centre for Southwark. 

British Land’s Cariaga says: “Even before Covid, we wanted Canada Water to be a place where life happened. The space is being divided 50/50 between commercial and residential. It has always been as much about working as it has been about living.” 

Key highlights: 

  • The development will offer 100,000 sq m of retail, leisure, entertainment and community space.
  • It will feature the first new high street in London for 100 years and 16 new streets covering 3.8km.
  • 5,000 sq m of retail space (around 20 shops) will be offered at discounted rent levels for 10 years to support local retailers.
Canada Water 15 minute city mock up
Canada Water development