Supermarkets – the new drivers of urban growth

14 May 2010

Supermarkets have become major players in building and shaping places. Retailers don’t just want to build a supermarket nowadays. They want to redevelop town centres, with housing, shopping streets and schools.

Locations of Asda, Sainsbury's and Tesco supermarket stores in Britain

Locations of Asda, Sainsbury's and Tesco supermarket stores in Britain

While the economic downturn has impacted heavily upon most development, the major retailers have gone from strength to strength. Supermarkets are increasingly being built on prime sites in an urban setting, rather than out of town, and investment in the site goes well beyond building a big retail shed.

CABE has reviewed more than 30 supermarket-led large mixed use schemes and we have criticised schemes designed primarily to deliver the functions of the store rather than making a credible part of town. For instance, too often the provision of parking drives the layout of the site, and compromises design. And the housing can seem like an afterthought: you may have to cross over loading bays to reach your front door, and have no outdoor space beyond the car park.

So why do local authorities give consent even when faced with poor design? They are under pressure. Inward investment is much coveted in an economic downturn, and this kind of development can bring with it much needed affordable homes and community facilities. Supermarkets are also powerfully resourced organisations when it comes to obtaining planning permission.

Yet the local authority really can be the ring master. If investment is in short supply they must make it go even further, which means ensuring that any new retail-led development will create an attractive environment, contributing to local character and to local prosperity. The consent to build brings huge value and economic opportunities for the developer and it should not be given too easily.

Large schemes like these have a significant impact on existing retail centres. Local authorities have the opportunity, within their core strategy, to be very clear about where they believe mixed use, large scale development will underpin and not undermine the existing retail offer. If they are clear about ideal location and the quality expected, it gives them more strength in their negotiations with developers. It also means developers know what is expected.

There are very few built-out mixed-use schemes to look at yet, and even fewer that are also inspirational. CABE has developed some guidance for supermarkets, to improve design, and this is summarised below.

In essence, the scheme must suit the site and integrate well into its neighbourhood. It needs to provide a decent environment for residents. It should be energy efficient, and minimise parking. Above all, major retailers need to recognise the complexity of investing in mixed use development, and the long term commitment involved.

How to arrive at better design

First, the proposed development must not be too bulky for the neighbourhood, and must be tailored to the site. The balance between the supermarket and residential and community use needs careful thought, and the developer should not reach for a standard floorplan off the shelf.

In this scheme in Epsom, for example, Tesco has proposed too much development for the site, and too much car parking (nearly 500 spaces in an accessible town centre location). The design will not make for a lively street frontage, with advertising hoardings at ground floor level. The housing units above are backed up against the store, so all their windows face north.


This proposed Tesco in Epsom is in the heart of the town but it still has three levels of parking. This inflates the bulk of the building, to five storeys. It has a thin layer of housing units attached to its front.

Second, a large mixed use scheme should be integrated into its neighbourhood. Too often the new streets are primarily defined by the traffic and parking requirements of the store.

In Bromley-by-Bow, in east London, a new district centre is proposed based on a Tesco-led masterplan (below). When CABE reviewed it in February 2010, we found it gave priority to the store rather than responding to the bigger design challenge of creating a successful and sustainable neighbourhood. For instance, a residential tower is positioned right next to the heavily trafficked A12 where noise and air quality are at their worst, and views are dominated by the road and roofs of the store and petrol station. Although a primary school is provided, it is tacked on to the delivery yard at the end of the store and access crosses a busy car park and service yard entrance.

A Tesco-led masterplan, Bromley-by-Bow

This proposed Tesco masterplan for Bromley by Bow, east London, places a residential tower right beside the noisy and polluted A12, where views are dominated by either the road or the roofs of the store and petrol station.

This proposed scheme in Fulham, west London, will contribute to a lively street including entrances for the residents off the street, and no blank walls. The designers have integrated the store into a network of streets so that the box of the store is hidden by homes and smaller units around it. Instead of the supermarket store totally dominating the main street, its front door is limited to what is needed as an entrance and retains an existing older building as part of the new street frontage.


This proposed Sainsbury’s scheme in Fulham, west London, has been designed to integrate well into the existing urban environment. Front doors for residents are provided off a lively street, and the box of the store is concealed behind homes and smaller units.

Third, supermarket schemes should reflect a long-term strategy to minimise environmental impact, and energy use. This is not the same as bolt-on features, such as a lonely wind turbine or timber cladding. It means having a fundamental plan for how different uses can work together. Building above the store, for example, severely restricts the opportunity to light or ventilate the sales floor naturally, which is common for stores on the continent. This store in East Tyrol, Austria, shows how natural light can change the shopping experience.

An existing store in East Tyrol, Austria

Most stores on the continent are designed to be lit naturally, like this one in East Tyrol, Austria.

Fourth, supermarket-led housing developments should provide a high quality environment for residents. This includes clear and safe access routes to their homes and a real ‘address’ – a proud and visible front door to the apartments from the street. CABE often instead sees proposals where residents are obliged to walk round the back of the store past the delivery bays to enter their homes. There should always be high quality amenity space for residents, for instance at podium level, and a clear division between routes for the shopping public and the residents’ private world.


Residents in supermarket-led housing developments are entitled to enjoy a high quality environment, starting with a proud front door off the street (picture on left). The gate shown on the right, by contrast, fails to say ‘welcome home’.

CABE has been critical of many standard solutions to providing housing. The basic, crude approach is to superimpose it on the store box. This results in a poor living environment: flats are, for example, often single aspect (particularly grim if those windows face north).


In this proposed Tesco scheme in Tolworth, Kingston, the housing is just superimposed on the store box. This is the standard solution to providing housing in supermarket-led developments.

It is perfectly possible to arrive at inventive solutions which accommodate housing. The housing in Grimshaw’s scheme for Sainsbury in Camden Town is almost 25 years old and still bears out the original ambition - for well designed, distinctive housing on the Regent’s Canal. It shows that well-designed stores can make a lasting contribution to a city.

An existing Sainsbury's scheme in Camden, London

This housing on the canal behind Sainsbury’s in Camden Town was actually built as part of the store development 25 years ago, and it shows how good design will stand the test of time. Photo by duncan c.

Fifth, parking must be minimised: we are, after all, talking about prime urban sites with public transport and other feasible alternatives to using the car. Store customer car parking and access to delivery bays can dominate pedestrian routes and public space.  All new schemes need to be considered, with the local authority, as part of parking provision across the town centre. Supermarkets need to work with their prospective communities to share car parking space, and consider incentive schemes to manage shopping peaks. It can also mean thinking more imaginatively: at some Waitrose stores, for instance, cyclists can hire shopping baskets on wheels.

Supermarkets need to work with their prospective communities to share car parking space, and consider incentive schemes to manage shopping peaks. It can also mean thinking more imaginatively: at some Waitrose stores, for instance, cyclists can hire shopping baskets on wheels.

Brook Green

Delivery bays dominate at Tesco's Brook Green store. Photo by Haarala Hamilton.

Finally, CABE is working with the supermarkets to explore how the future of retail impacts on design.  Internet shopping might, for instance, mean that the traditional retail floorspace will shrink, with more space needed for service deliveries. So supermarkets need to look beyond their standard 5 -10 year business plans, and build flexibility into the construction of the store box to allow for change.

Residential development above cavernous retail units raises a serious issue. These will be redundant long before the homes built on top of them - then what will happen?

So building homes is a long term commitment. Mixed use development, with all its different ownership structures, is vastly more complex than a retail box, and new thinking is needed to protect its long term value, for the developer and the community.

See a list of all the supermarket schemes that we have design reviewed.


Your comments

Reggie Tricker on

The fact is, we are always asking for better pedestrian and cycle permeability and access strategies - but those working on behalf of supermarkets are unwilling to engage with this process and seem not to have such a direction imposed on them by their clients. I have trawled many times for guidance on better supermarket car park design – there is no specific guidance/advice that we can try holding supermarkets to as far as I can see, that takes into account sustainability, health and safety and easy/convenient access for all. Often it is a case, as the article raises, of fitting in as many car parking spaces as possible and provision for the car, or alternatively putting in crude pedestrian and cycle measures to minimum standards. We would welcome further studies in this area, and this would extend to edge of town sites where although there is more bulk buying, there are still many customers buying one or two bags of shopping or less that could be encouraged/incentivised to travel sustainably. Supermarkets see staff travel as something that they can reluctantly try and influence, but customer travel is something they seem very afraid of having any input into (despite being stockists of travel equipment for various modes of transport, being salesmen in many instances of the key energy source for motorised travel – petrol, and holding many mechanisms for encouraging behaviour change – financial incentives through the tills!).

ken243 on

Quite an emphasis on design/ aesthetic criteria in assessing these 'big shops'. I would like to see more integration of design with active and public transport accessibility/ priority and hence public health and national carbon footprint. Consideration of the relative sustainability across the uses within mixed developments exposes a planning time-bomb that needs more thought and work. Ken, NSW

Standuptotesco on

An excellent article easy to read and full of common sense. The residents of Kirkby are grateful for CABE's evaluation on the now doomed Tesco/Eveton Destination Kirkby project but fear our council again are happy to be led by Tesco and are keeping the community out of the process. Can CABE please advise if they have been consulted by KMBC or Tesco on Plan B.