What’s so bad about regional malls?

Waterfront City, Docklands, Melbourne - one of the newer breed of "topless" malls.

I’m always a little surprised by the ill-feeling many planners, architects and educated elites show toward regional managed shopping centres (a.k.a malls). The alternative isn’t always articulated but in most cases seems to be some notion of the traditional strip shopping centre, or ‘High Street’**.

The vast majority of Australians – the 90% plus who live in the suburbs – have pretty clearly voted with their feet for shopping in malls (see herehere, here, here and here). That seems like a rational and inevitable response to the prevailing cost of travel and, relative to strip centres, the considerable advantages of regional malls for a population that’s overwhelmingly car-based. The key advantages are:

One, malls provide complementary shopping – shoppers can buy a diverse range of goods and services from different retailers at a single destination. On one trip, a customer can buy electronics, clothes, furniture, kitchen gadgets, get a haircut, and more.

Two, they provide comparison shopping – buyers can compare the prices of similar products (say shoes) at multiple retailers within the same destination.

Three, economies of scale at the level of the store and the franchise network provide purchasers with lower prices and wider product choice than they could ever hope to get on the High Street.

Four, most regional malls offer a climate-controlled shopping experience irrespective of whether it’s hot, cold or raining outdoors (although enclosure might possibly be of declining importance – newer malls like Waterfront City at Docklands are largely open-air with car-free pedestrian “streets”).

Five, they’re safe. There are no cars within malls, so parents of small children don’t have to worry about road safety. In most, there’s a permanent security guard and centre management presence. Most don’t have pubs or licensed restaurants so there’re fewer drunks.

Six, malls are very sociable. They have indoor ‘streets’ and large food courts. They have cinemas and play areas for small children. They’re meeting places that offer plenty of “buzz” for little cost. Few traditional strip shopping centres have a direct equivalent to the food court because they’re not centrally managed.

Seven, they’re equitable. Prices are competitive – that’s one reason those on average to low incomes like them. Maybe they also like the fact their “relative poverty” isn’t highlighted by the sorts of expensive restaurants and designer shops often found in fashionable strip shopping centres.

Of course there’s no such thing as a perfect solution and malls also have downsides. The most common criticisms I hear are as follows:

One, malls are dull and franchising means “they’re all the same” no matter where you are in Australia. Personally, I don’t find regional malls particularly appealing (although some are better than others), but there’s no getting away from the fact that most people, on balance, prefer them to the High Street. Either it’s a price most people are prepared to pay for the benefits, or most simply don’t see many other malls, or more likely there’re many, many people who actually don’t find them dull.

Two, they turn their back on the street. This criticism misses the essential point of malls – they have their streets within the building and these indoor promenades are often safer, quieter and more congenial that outside streets. Shops blend with the ‘street’ – mall designers have understood the importance of “activation” since the days of Victor Gruen.

It’s true that malls often have blank, windowless facades and are separated from the street network by parking, but this is true of many suburban building types. Suburban universities, schools, hospitals and sports stadia, for example, are commonly set well back from the street and only occasionally directly ‘address’ it. This is a wider urban design issue and there are ways to handle it – it’s by no means peculiar to malls.

Three, malls are blatantly commercial – they’re designed around getting people “to buy”. That’s probably true, but almost every proposal I see to “activate” civic spaces is based on uses like cafes and bars that are, well, commercial operations. Remove the commercial operators from Southbank and see how much life is left. Strip shopping centres too, are places of commerce. Read the rest of this entry »

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