Darryl Chen, 25 01 09

The Bishop of Stepney once remarked that each parish church in his diocese was no more than five minutes walk from the last. As an organizing system of governance, accountability and dissemination of religious doctrine, the Anglican parish system was an effective means of organizing the burgeoning cities of England through the scale of the local neighbourhood. 

Tesco supermarkets are distributed with the same rigour. Each new store is planned with software allowing the right matching of store size with catchment area. Tesco’s market share is more than twice its nearest rival and so as the blue and red logo continues to sweep through England’s cities, we ask could the Tesco catchment area be the new urban parish?

If one were to make visible the boundaries that Tesco already draws up, and allocate residents to a “parish store” (independent stores acting as the equivalent of non-conformist sects), might that yield more benefits than just proximity to cheap groceries? A definable population means the establishment of accountability between store and customer base. On the supply side, the store can market to particular neighbourhood demographics. On the demand side, boycotts and selective purchase campaigns can be organized within communities to shift the stocking policies or even employment policies of particular stores. 

Tesco is seen as a new kind of public infrastructure (just as McDonald’s and Starbucks toilets have a de facto public function). This might act as a soft strategy for defying the homogenization of urban neighbourhoods by counter-intuitively embracing their market logic and recasting inevitable retail monoliths into semi-localized entities. Where the town hall, parish church and market hall have been supplanted as identifiable hubs of localities, the Tesco parish system admits we are all consumers, but that our urban environments needn’t suffer for it.

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