The CBD and the Threat of Decentralization

Many changes have occurred in Western society since 1945 that have implications for the twentiethfirst century CBD. These changes include fluctuating urban economic performance, the rise of global neoliberalism, and advances in process and product technologies. Notwithstanding, it is now near customary to claim that decentralization, especially in retailing, has had the biggest impact on the fate of the CBD. More recently the academic literature has been concerned with the continued growth of retail parks and regional malls in the UK and mega malls in North America that are purported to threaten the long term future of the CBD. This poses a problem because while CBDs are expected to compete with one another at the interurban scale, they must first and foremost be able to survive in their own regional economies. These trends have been complimented by a strong current of deindustrialization exemplified by the rise of technoploes in the US and growing support for polycentric regions in European planning circles. This restructuring of the space economy is particularly problematic because in relation to retailing and business parks at least, the CBD is unable to fully exploit the general shift toward major space units and the demand for adjacent car parking.

The Case of UK Retailing

As decentralization continues apace a number of CBDs have experienced propulsive growth at out of town locations. In the case of the UK this trend is nothing new, as retailing has existed at non CBD locations since before the end of the nineteenth-century. It wasn't until 1947 that the Town and Country and Planning Act officially established a centralized system of planning. This meant a traditional approach to retailing as both central and local government aimed to preserve a hierarchy of shopping centers in accordance with central place theory. Consequently, proposals for peripheral sites were perceived as a threat to the established retail hierarchy and the viability of the CBD as a whole. This stands in marked contrast to the post war situation in North America where out of town regional shopping centers and mega malls were commonplace.

However, since the 1960s the British retail environment has altered dramatically through decentralization that reflected both morphological and organizational changes. The opening of Brent Cross in 1976 was followed by other out of town malls including the Metro Centre, Meadowhall, Merry Hill, Lakeside, Bluewater, and Braehead. These out of town sites offer good road access, large amounts of free parking, major retail chains acting as anchor tenants, and some form of nonretailing activity such as the ice rink at Braehaed and the concert venue at the Trafford Centre in Manchester.

One influential approach usefully captures this retail decentralization in three waves:

  • Wave 1 – commencing in the late 1960s involved the decentralization of food retailing in the form of freestanding superstores and hypermarkets.
  • Wave 2 – beginning in the 1970s, was the decentralization of stores selling household goods, including do it yourself goods, furniture, carpets, electrical goods, and motor accessories.
  • Wave 3 – from the mid 1980s onward was associated with the exodus of comparison goods such as 'high streets out of town'.

With the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 the New Right aggressively pursued the politics of deregulation through 'opening up' the UK economy for international business. Shortly afterward, moves to make planning more 'business friendly' began with the Department of the Environment's Circular 22/80. This asked local authorities to prioritize planning applications that contributed to national and local economic activity. In recognition of these evolving changes a final draft of the National Planning Guidelines in England and the National Planning and Policy Guidelines in Scotland was drawn up and planning authorities were asked to facilitate retail development, not only in existing centers but where appropriate on sites detached from such centers. These neoliberal conditions set the scene for the fiercely competitive 'store wars' that continue to pose a threat to British CBDs today.

While shopping malls pose a threat to the British CBD, they have also been at the forefront of the 'back to the city movement'. A number of cities up and down the UK including Birmingham, Leeds, and Glasgow have used the seductive trappings of retailing as a privileged tool to gain competitive advantage in their respective regional hinterlands. The new Bullring Mall has injected d1 billion into the center of Birmingham and the White City development in London is expected to generate more than d2 billion of fresh investment in the next 10 years after it opens in 2008. In Glasgow city center, the opening of Buchanan Galleries Shopping Mall in 1999 reflects another attempt where the CBD is attempting to become more competitive with out of town retail developments at Braehead and Glasgow Fort. Thus, the use of malls in the CBD is as much about restoring the downtown area as a center for economic activity as it is about capitalizing upon consumer demand for high order and salubrious retail facilities. This trend is compounded by more recent political shifts that will provide cities with the chance to elect their own mayors. Despite an initial lukewarm take up, the UK Government is pushing the idea of a mayoral model that if successful may provide stronger leadership for CBDs in the future.


Throughout much of the twentieth century, CBDs served as areas of supreme importance and all surrounding areas sorted themselves into ranks of decreasing eminence. This economic determinism meant that high order services including retailing were located in the CBD based on their ability to pay rent. However, the use of the term CBD is now more debatable than ever before; many cities now have 'central business' all over the central area. This is a result of continuing pressure on finite CBD space that intensified in the post war period. Consequently, the emergence of more polycentric regions has become a threat to traditional central place type urban patterns. In both North America and Europe this threat has created a more competitive space economy consummated by various non CBD developments including shopping malls, suburbia, technopoles, and edge cities. However, since the 1980s these developments have galvanized a number of CBD initiatives encapsulated by a more general 'back to the city movement'. This ongoing reinvention of the CBD reiterates the competitive advantage of cities through taking stock of various tax breaks and financial incentives that thrive in a climate of deregulation. This approach has had some success in the CBDs of world cities like London, New York, and Tokyo. Whether or not the CBDs of smaller cities can regain their dominance in relation to proximate ex urban locations remains to be seen.