First came the car. Then came the mall. The result was the death of the community.
The massive rise in living standards of countries in the developed world during the late 20C saw motor vehicle ownership spiral to a point of availability for all. The freedom of movement afforded by the car saw the birth of the out of town superstore or shopping mall, where large areas of available land at low rental costs were located next to new and easily accessible highways. The parking and congestion problems of the town centre could now be forgotten and ever more businesses packed up; out-priced and out-performed by the convenience of one-stop, car-based shopping. Even in small villages the convenience or general store stopped being convenient and what’s more they were no longer able to compete with the variety of choice and price point of the huge out of town facilities. Along with the general store went the butcher, the baker, the greengrocer, the fishmonger, the hardware store and the post office.
It is no surprise that without the “glue” to hold communities together they will cease to exist. The fear of losing the sense of community is a common thread. Research in Britain reflects the fact that even though people are becoming more efficient consumers, with more internet and out-of-town shopping, they're concerned that this is having a negative knock-on effect on people and places. The loss of local amenities such as shops and post offices is the greatest concern among people aged 55 and older, which could be because older people are more likely to live in rural areas with poor transport links. This can make their day-to-day lives increasingly difficult and isolated.
Today in China we are witnessing unprecedented levels of road building, car ownership, inner city congestion and the familiar rise of the out of town shopping mall. It is not a huge leap of the imagination to anticipate the same breakdown of both existing rural and urban communities as has been evidenced in the developed world. With China’s great leap to urbanisation comes the question of how to create new community layers within new urbanised residential areas. Can technology help?
E-commerce has been changing a lot in China recently. When you buy something online and you are not available to pick it up at home, you can let the courier leave it at a nearby convenience store. This has spawned a sudden host of phone APPS and e-facilities developed around the local community store. You can directly order unique products to be delivered, sample showcase goods at the store and even get financial services there. The general store has in fact returned under a new guise and associated community shopping is returning with it; 260 mobile sales vans, provided by Central Kitchen Logistic Company are now supplying local residential communities in Shenzhen with vegetables, meats and fruits which are cheaper and fresher than standard retail outlets. Small local businesses are starting to arrive next to these vans and provide a community focus in the same way as the traditional market.
The emergence of new community shopping traits in Shenzhen is evidence of how the world’s fastest growing city is harnessing its technological edge yet at the same time understanding the human side of community development. Perhaps the 21C will see the death of the out of town superstore and the rebirth of the local village market.
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