Urban Studies Retail Districts
Conrad Kickert
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 October 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 October 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922481-0012


Retail districts are key elements of the urban experience, reflecting and reinforcing the economic, social, political and physical attributes of their environments. Vibrant cities and neighborhoods depend on similarly vibrant retail cores and districts, and vice versa. Furthermore, retail districts strongly influence the urban experience by facilitating the exchange of goods and culture, encouraging social capital, and enabling entrepreneurship. It is therefore surprising how peripherally urban retail districts are discussed in the academic literature, as few geographers, economists, urbanists and sociologists study them as interconnected economic, social, political and physical systems. In many Western countries, urban retail districts have struggled to keep pace with trends toward efficiency, consolidation, and decentralization of retailers, and academic research has similarly moved on. While urban retail districts represent uniquely fine-grained physical settings and conditions, the majority of contemporary retail research has shifted its focus toward macro-scale or operational processes of marketing, consumer behavior, and distribution. As a result, many relevant works on urban retail are rather dated, with any recent works written in countries where retailers have remained urbanized. In this English-language bibliography, many works are therefore British, although many foreign works exist. Over recent decades, a revival of research interest in urban vitality at the scale of the retail district has prompted advances in qualitative and quantitative insights. Analytical methods to study the external and internal structure of retail districts are similarly evolving. Contemporary scholarly debates on urban retail focus on the role of retail districts as social hubs, with authors confirming their positive effect on economic vitality and cultural transfer, while acknowledging the threat of gentrification and homogenization. An increasing number of studies focus on the withdrawal of retailers from underprivileged urban districts, resulting in a dearth of affordable access to healthy food options for their residents—coined “food deserts.” As government involvement in urban retail has diminished in many countries in the late 20th century, an increasing number of retail districts have adopted the self-taxed and governed Business Improvement District model, which has prompted significant academic inquiry and debate over the past decades. The globalization of retail corporations has prompted growing academic interest in retailing in the Global South, connecting the typically local condition of retail districts to global flows of capital and culture. This bibliography presents overview works on the current condition and evolution of urban retail, common analytical models of retail distribution and consumer behavior, and current scholarly debates.

General Overviews

The topic of urban retail districts suffers from a lack of dedicated overview publications, as many works are either dated, or lost their focus on specifically urban retail. Many early works focused on the American retail context, but as urban retail withered in the United States, more recent English-written books that cover urban retail districts almost solely originate from the United Kingdom. Scott 2007, Dawson 1980, Kent and Omar 2003, and Findlay and Sparks 2002 provide good overviews of the many theories that cover the location and distribution of urban retail. The latter authors, Findley and Sparks, also maintain an extensive online Retail Planning Knowledge Base at the Institute for Retail Studies at the University of Stirling. The New Retail Geography movement in the mid-1990s has sought to expand research from physical retail location to the structures of retail capital and consumerism. Their rationale for methodological renewal is reflected in Batty 1997, an overview of their premises can be found in Wrigley and Lowe 2002, and a response from locational retail geographers in Birkin, et al. 2002. Many of the above theories and models have found their way into popular current guidebooks on planning and designing urban retail districts, such as Coleman 2006 in the United Kingdom and Gibbs 2012 in the United States. The sections Data Sources and Journals provide more current insights on the highly dynamic retail market.

  • Batty, Michael. “The Retail Revolution.” Environment and Planning B 24.1 (1997): 1–2.

    Regional scientist Michael Batty predates current trends by warning that too much of his contemporary retail studies have focused on physical location, which he dubs a “straightjacket.” Instead, he suggests further inquiry into the transformation of physical retail by globalization and its replacement by e-commerce. Retail research has since indeed focused on these topics, among others.

  • Birkin, Mark, Graham Clarke, and Martin Clarke. Retail Geography and Intelligent Network Planning. Chichester, UK: John Wiley, 2002.

    This book has been written in response to the New Retail Geography movement, arguing that physical location still does matter, even in the face of e-commerce and market saturation. It outlines the current geography of retailers and provides an array of spatial analysis methods, which also focus on urban retail districts. The book combines theory and practical case studies, mostly focusing on the United Kingdom but including foreign examples.

  • Coleman, Peter. Shopping Environments: Evolution, Planning and Design. Oxford: Architectural Press, 2006.

    Retail architect and urban designer Peter Coleman focuses this book on the design of British “shopping environments,” an umbrella term for urban retail malls and districts. The book includes an historical overview of British urban retail districts, and a section on current urban retail challenges and trends. The majority of the book is reserved for detailed guidance on the planning and design of new shopping environments.

  • Dawson, John A., ed. Retail Geography. London: Croom Helm, 1980

    This edited volume reflects the state of retail geography in 1980 in the United States and Europe. Chapters on retail location and distribution are detailed, clearly organized, and contain a wealth of relevant sources, although retail organization, consumer research, and retail planning policies have evolved since the book’s publication.

  • Findlay, Anne, and Leigh Sparks. Retailing: Critical Concepts. 4 vols. Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2002.

    In four edited volumes, this work presents an overview of retail knowledge at the dawn of the 21st century. Volumes cover the evolution of retailing, current consumer, policy, financial, and physical conditions, retail operations, and the international retail environment.

  • Findlay, Anne, and Leigh Sparks. The Retail Planning Knowledge Base. Stirling, UK: Institute for Retail Studies, University of Stirling and London: National Retail Planning Forum, 2012.

    This searchable file contains a wealth of annotated readings on retail distribution, operation, planning, consumer culture, and the urban context. While its listed articles and books mostly focus on the United Kingdom, it contains a dedicated section on retail planning in the United States and Europe.

  • Gibbs, Robert J. Principles of Urban Retail Planning and Development. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley, 2012.

    Retail planning consultant Robert Gibbs outlines principles for planning and designing retail districts that largely follow the neo-traditionalism of the New Urbanism movement. While the author’s envisaged retail districts are more often suburban than urban, the book’s insights are derived from and aim to emulate urban settings. The book includes a classification of store and retail cluster types, and guidance on designing, programming, and managing retail districts.

  • Kent, Tony, and Ogenyi Omar. Retailing. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

    A popular textbook to students of retail marketing and management in the United Kingdom, which includes a historical overview of retail dynamics and current market conditions that extend to the European context. While this book, like most other textbooks, mostly focuses on the operational side of retailing, it includes a chapter on retail location strategy that outlines main locational theories, and a chapter on retail trends that includes e-commerce.

  • Scott, Peter. Geography and Retailing. London: Routledge, 2007.

    This book provides a methodical overview of retail geography in 1970, citing a wealth of studies and models of retail location and distribution completed over the past two decades. Chapters cover central place, gravity, and spatial interaction theories, classify retail centers by size and type, and introduce retail planning. Cases mostly focus on the United Kingdom and the United States, and several reprints demonstrate its ongoing popularity.

  • Wrigley, Neil, and Michelle Lowe. Reading Retail: A Geographical Perspective on Retailing and Consumption Spaces. London: Arnold, 2002.

    This book expands on the authors’ earlier introduction of New Retail Geography, a movement started in the mid-1990s to shift retail research from its traditional focus on location and distribution toward structures of retail capital and consumerism. The book draws from a diverse set of reading excerpts in fields such as geography, sociology, and anthropology, connecting critical perspectives with key theories. Several chapters on retail environments focus on urban settings.

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