The UK’s retail parks were once the future. Now they look like drab relics of the past


As you cruise round the ring road at 50mph, they slide into view: huge square hulks with their supernaturally bright colours and 6ft lettering. Underappreciated and rarely discussed, commercial retail parks are a major part of the UK’s economic and social life. But now, amid a combination of long-term trends and the impact of coronavirus, they might be on their way out.

To understand why, we must understand why retail parks exist in the first place. The first was the Kalamazoo Mall in Texas, designed in 1959 by Viennese architect Victor Gruen. Envisioned as the ideal urban experience, it was intended as a way of capitalising on the popularity of the car. Gruen included more than shops in his proposals: he wanted medical centres, libraries, even apartments. The mall spawned so many derivations around the world – with the UK particularly keen – that in 1978 Gruen disavowed his creation, insisting: “I refuse to pay alimony for those bastard developments.”

But the economy determines urban form more than architectural vision. “Form follows finance”, as architecture historian Carol Willis put it – and by looking at market trends, we might be able to predict the future of these places.

The same economic thrust that sends skyscrapers up also puts retail boxes on the city’s peripheries. Today, the ubiquitous capitalist form is the retail park and its cousins, the distribution and self-storage sheds. They’ve proliferated since the UK’s first retail park was built in West Bridgford, Nottingham, in 1964. The British public had never seen anything like it, and it symbolised the era’s suburban plenty and car-based freedom. Now, though, they mean something quite different; something more like the drudgery of bulk-buying and the dread of weekend chores.

The reasons for the retail park’s demise are structural, but some are contingent and immediate, supercharged by the pandemic. The obvious deep threat is online: to shop we now follow links, rather than signs round the ring road. While this affects the whole retail sector, the pre-Covid high street was pivoting towards services such as nails bars as much as it could. What, then, can retail parks do?

Despite a brief respite in the early days of the pandemic, when more people wanted to shop at big box stores, the general trend is not positive. New retail park developments across the country are grinding to a halt, according to a 2019 report. And having been a pioneer of the retail park in Europe, the UK is going off them altogether. Retail warehousing vacancy rates have once again risen and are now at 7.8% according to recent research. Since 2016, there has been a jump in vacant retail units in existing retail parks as a result of store closures, from 771,095 sq metres to 1.3m sq metres in the most recent quarter of 2020.

UK planning law allows for an amount of “permitted development” before planning officers get involved. In a legal sense it’s already possible to convert these places, in a limited way, into housing. Retail units of up to 150 sq metres can be converted into residential units, through “change of use”. So the question is: why hasn’t this happened more?

There are major technical issues, not least the provision of natural light, which mean that converting commercial into residential isn’t a great idea. A recent government white paper, Planning for the Future, proposes a significant shift in the planning system, which would make “change of use” easier. This could lead to more dire 21st-century slums like those which already exist at Harlow’s Terminus House, a former office block turned “human warehouse” housing. The pandemic has exposed the consequences of poor housing, and it is sobering to think that we might allow this to happen more.

The outer skin of the retail park box is hard to adjust – adding a storey, for example, would be prohibitively costly. Dividing the interior with partition walls is feasible, but would result in deep plans, perhaps suited to live/work studio flats, but not a three-bed family home. Following the rise in warehouse-style accommodation in recent decades, perhaps some sort of retail-park chic will emerge, led by the gentrification vanguard: artists searching for studio space. In the immediate future this seems unlikely, but if the pressure on housing grows further, it may become inevitable.

Within their skin, these buildings are very adaptable. For example, the US office supplier Staples has diversified by opening Staples Studio co-working spaces within their stores. Camborne Business Park, outside Cambridge, has developed new plans for reinvention that include live/work units and co-working and workshop spaces. In a sense, we might be returning to something closer to Gruen’s vision.

Dr David Knight, a planning academic and director of DK-CM architects, recently told me: “Now we have an opportunity to rethink the public value of retail parks. How can we ask more from them, on behalf of everyone – can we put five-a-side football pitches on top, creches inside and playgrounds at the front?”

Retail parks already house leisure activities like kids’ soft play, and are often unofficial late-night arenas for doughnutting cars. Perhaps they will devolve further into Ballardian subcultural zones for activities too obscure for the high street, but too tangible for the internet – warehouse-like nightclubs of old, or LARPing centres.

Retail parks express our contradictions: economic efficiency and sentimental attachment to consumer goods. They also show how adaptable we are. While the UK endlessly looks back to its past, it is also very capable of embracing novelty. Retail parks were once the future, but the future didn’t last long. No doubt one day these parks that can seem so drab and uninspiring will become places of nostalgia. Maybe we’ll miss those beacons of consumerism just off the ring road, and all the optimism they represented.