A supermarket architect wonders about what their project will do to the local high street

Q. I am working on a supermarket project which, when complete, will affect the high street’s independent retailers in a small market town. Is this an architectural concern?

Many projects architects work on do not make sense even in times of stability when we think the future is predictable.

This applies even more in times like these. The promise of infinite growth, economic prosperity, greater personal wealth and happiness, cheap travel and ever greater choice in all aspects of daily life rings hollow. Those of us who understand what is happening predict the future is unlikely to hold such generous promise for many years to come.

Architects have not been at the forefront of challenging the sustainability of decades of western boom, competing for and accepting commissions regardless of their impact on existing communities, marginal economies, natural resources and energy demands. We have designed out-of-town shopping centres, substandard city centre apartments, mediocre volume housing on the edge of towns, and deep-plan offices ringed by tarmac car parks.

It would be hard to find a better example of a commission that should have been challenged than a new supermarket on the edge of a market town.

Yet the architects of such schemes did not ask how it would affect the existing high street. What will happen to the local greengrocer, post office, butcher and newsagent? What will be its impact on traffic, landscape, waste and local producers? How will it add to versatility, diversity and self-sufficiency, or reduce our depency on imported goods?

During this period of unprecedented prosperity, we failed to consider the impact of our work. Was it because we didn’t want to spoil the party, or that we didn’t care, didn’t understand or simply felt that such considerations are not our responsibility?

As we take an enforced break from consumption, we have a chance to rethink — architects have the skills to influence policies, and now is a good time to start using them.