Re-Examining the Retail Hierarchy in Singapore: Are the Town Centres and Neighbourhood Centres Sustainable?

By Sim, Loo-Lee; Yu, Shi-Ming et al. | The Town Planning Review, March 2002 | Go to article overview

Re-Examining the Retail Hierarchy in Singapore: Are the Town Centres and Neighbourhood Centres Sustainable?


Sim, Loo-Lee, Yu, Shi-Ming, Malone-Lee, Lai-Choo, The Town Planning Review


Singapore's retail hierarchy is similar to the traditional hierarchical retail structure of cities in the United Kingdom. The retail hierarchy consists of downtown/Orchard Road, regional centre, town centre and neighbourhood centre, interspersed with numerous private suburban shopping centres. From the mid-1980s, growing affluence and increased mobility of the residents led to the decline of the neighbourhood centres. This is aggravated by the recent development of a regional centre. This paper re-examines Singapore's retail hierarchy and assesses the sustainability of the town centres and neighbourhood centres. The findings show that the town centres have the potential to be healthy centres but many of the neighbourhood centres lack vitality and are no longer viable as retail locations. The analysis indicates that Singapore's present retail hierarchy may not be viable in the longer term, and the functional roles of the different centres have to be rationalised.

Studies on retail hierarchy have been based mainly on central-place concepts, which were originally developed by Christaller (1966). The concept of a retail hierarchy has been used to explain the location and size distribution of shopping centres in American cities (Berry, 1963; Simmons, 1964). Classification of shopping centres in the United Kingdom have also been based on centre size and catchment (Davies, 1984; Guy, 1984).

Critical reviews of central-place theory and its related concepts were common (Beavon, 1977; Berry and Parr, 1988; Carter, 1981; Davies, 1977; Jones and Simmons, 1990; King, 1984; Smith 1990). Despite the outdated and restrictive assumptions of central-place concepts, these have been applied to retail planning in many cities. Examples are British cities, which had traditional hierarchical structure, until as recently as the 1960s (Collis et al., 2000). Singapore is an Asian city with a planned retail hierarchy comprising downtown/Orchard Road, regional centre, town centre and neighbourhood centre in descending order. In addition to these, there are numerous private suburban shopping centres scattered in between.

Singapore's retail hierarchy has been developed over a period of four decades, starting from the early 1960s with the building of new towns by the Housing and Development Board (HDB). The development of self-sucient new towns based on the neighbourhood concept, similar to the British model, has resulted in the presence of numerous town centres and neighbourhood centres to cater for the daily needs of the public housing residents. These centres thrived from the 1970s to the mid-1980s. Since then, growing auence and increased mobility of the residents have led to the decline of small shops and the poor performance of the neighbourhood centres (Sim, 1999). This is aggravated by the development of planned shopping centres or shopping malls by private developers in the suburban areas.

The neighbourhood centre is similar in size to the neighbourhood centre in the British context, while the town centre is equivalent in concept and scale to the district centre in the UK (Guy, 1994). In 1991, the regional centre (a higherorder centre) was added to the retail hierarchy with the implementation of the Revised Concept Plan 1991 (URA, 1991). This new addition will have further impact on the town centres and neighbourhood centres.

There is great concern among policy-makers and retail associations about the declining role of small retailers and the poor performance of neighbourhood centres in the HDB new towns (Sim, 2000), but very little research has been done on this aspect. Much less is known about the health of these centres as compared to research in Western cities (Stansbury, 1989; Civic Trust, 1994; DOE, 1994; 1996; LPAC, 1994). For example, using a social system theory approach (Luhmann, 1994) to analyse Oslo's retail hierarchy, Omholt (2000) showed a breakdown of the traditional retail hierarchy and proposed a set of strategic actions for the city. …

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