Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Doctor of Philosophy




Jason Gilliland


If the city is a theatre of social interaction (Mumford 1996), then one of the principle stage sets is the retail landscape. Retail districts are generally where people congregate, making places of shopping among the liveliest areas the city. In addition to being social settings, retail areas are also where a large component of the city’s economy is transacted, and they are implicated in the political dramas of the city, particularly those dealing with issues of growth and development. Retail shops are highly visible elements of the urban landscape, lining principle arteries and clustering at major transit nodes. Retailing is woven throughout the economic, social, political, and built fabrics of the city. The evolution of the retail landscape was studied throughout the development of London, Ontario, a typical mid-sized North American city. The functional and spatial composition of the retail sector was documented from the first settlement, thru the era of rapid industrialization, to today’s consumption-based city. Over time, the retail landscape exhibited much dynamism, reflecting changing socio-economic conditions, as well as technological innovation. Both the retailers themselves, and the environments in which their businesses were conducted, have evolved. From the primitive general store, thru the grand emporia lining ‘mainstreet’, to the contemporary planned shopping centres. Comparisons were made between the physical characteristics of the built environments constructed in various eras which make up the retail landscape. Drawing from the urban morphology literature (notably Conzen 1960), analysis was conducted of the town-plan, building forms, and land-uses of the various retail environments. In addition to documenting the general changes in these town-scape elements over time, further analysis was conducted on the form and function of the archetypical retail environments, the traditional ‘mainstreet’ district and contemporary shopping centres. Although they differ in many ways, a common logic was found in all retail landscapes, united through the drive for profit maximization by the retailers who shape their environments in striving towards this goal. Theoretical advancements to the field of urban morphology are presented, arguing that it is necessary to consider all elements of the town-scape in unison when describing the character of urban environments. A trialectic is proposed, taking into account how each of these elements simultaneously shapes and is shaped by the other two.