The agora was a central public space in ancient Greek city-states. The literal meaning of the word agora is ‘gathering place’ or ‘assembly’. It was the centre of the athletic, artistic, business, social, spiritual and political life of the city.
People have historically congregated in town centres, visiting them mainly to shop, drink or eat. Being together in the high street was a by-product of consumerism, which fuelled the dominance of retail.
The emergence of online shopping has been gradually changing this landscape and, when Covid-19 struck, physical retail was already in freefall. The pandemic has accelerated this decline and the demise of department stores was the last nail in the coffin.
In the post-pandemic era, the vacant shells of former department stores will provide a unique opportunity to reset the way we congregate in our town centres. Emerging from lockdown with a new outlook, having ‘relearned’ the importance of community togetherness and individual mental wellbeing, we will disassociate our need for togetherness from mindless consumption and amusement hysteria.
The agora will form an incubator for renewed community interaction
Redundant department stores will be repurposed into a new agora – a multifunctional space that will bring back non-retail services and functions that over the years gradually lost their place on the high street.
This new mix of uses will create a people-centred, neo-essentialist community enclave, bringing purpose and joy back to town centres.
You will go there to see an art exhibition, to repair your bike, phone or watch, to leave your children to play in a crèche or to sit down on a bench and read a book. You might meditate or pray, learn to repurpose things you no longer need in a ‘waste to want’ lab, learn to grow your own vegetables in an urban farm or relax in a sauna or spa.
Perhaps you will play a pinball machine, throw boules with your friends, see a doctor or a dentist, speak to a police constable, meet your local MP or a councillor or simply just hang out.
The agora will form an incubator for renewed community interaction and a catalyst for transformation towards a new hierarchy of needs and wants; an epicentre of the wider urban renewal celebrating activities deemed laborious, mundane and unfashionable in the retail-dominated pre-Covid era. 9
The great design challenge: the department store reborn
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The great design challenge: TP Bennett