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.

Four, malls are car-based and that has negative implications for energy security and emissions.  Well, very few people walk to the supermarkets or shops in my local strip shopping centre, either – the only difference is the average trip length to the mall is longer. We’re a car-based society and people respond to the prices on offer. Other than for day-to-day items like groceries and casual eating out, shoppers clearly think the benefits of the mall exceed the additional travelling time and vehicle operating costs.

If the price of petrol were to rise astronomically in the future then the relative attractiveness of the mall and the local strip shopping centre could very well change. But the price of petrol doubled in nominal terms between March 2000 and September 2008 (it’s fluctuated since) without notably shifting shoppers’ preferences toward the High Street.

No one knows how high petrol prices are going in the future, but not everyone agrees they’ll inevitably go stratospheric – the Federal Government’s new report on High Speed Rail, for example, assumes the perceived cost of car travel will rise by just 6% between 2009 and 2036. There is considerable potential for drivers and manufacturers to adapt to higher petrol prices by shifting to more fuel-efficient vehicles and to alternative fuels.

There’s a popular narrative that regional malls were only possible because driving is subsidised by governments. I think the influence of that is overstated – the inherent advantages of the mall for consumers vis a vis the strip shopping centre are simply too compelling. What could be a more important factor is the future impact of internet retailing on regional malls. Because they’re more goods-oriented, they might be hit harder than local centres (strip or otherwise) that are more oriented towards perishable goods and person-to-person services like GPs, real estate agents and restaurants.


**People sometimes mention markets like the one at Preston as superior to regional malls but really there’s not a lot of difference. Preston Market, for example, has a regional catchment, is largely car-based and is centrally managed. It has permanent infrastructure and it’s not particularly old either. It’s simply pitched at a different market from the local hard-top, Northland.

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29 Comments on “What’s so bad about regional malls?”

  1. RED says:

    In some areas there is a hybrid – for example the CBD of Frankston is essentially half Mall, half High Street. I think it works quite well, although there are some issues in parts of the CBD with vacancies. Having the two Mall buildings gives the CBD all of the parking advantages of the Mall, but you also get the outdoor shopping experience, which widens the retail offering. EastLand in Ringwood is also semi-integrated with the Ringwood shopping centre. I think this type of integration should be encouraged where applicable.

    • Alan Davies says:

      The Northcote Plaza near the cnr of High and Separation Streets is like that too. So also is the big mall in Cairns CBD — might be Cairns Central.

      • Darebin Local says:

        The Northcote Plaza is terrible; it offers a complete juxtaposition to an otherwise active and beautiful street scape. Moreover, it represents a wasted opportunity to link High Street to the open space at the plaza’s rear.

        Northcote Plaza answers your question. It could have at least been stacked up (and set at each level re height controls) rather than sprawling the entire 6ha (roughly – planning maps online) of highly valuable land. Times have changed, mind.

  2. Michael says:

    I remain unconvinced. A candidate for a Zombie idea has got to be the economists beloved notion of revealed preference. Northland is close to me but the fact that I reluctantly visit it occasionally doesn’t mean I like it or it serves my needs. I visit high streets too, as well as whatever businesses are within a small detour of my bike commute. The only places I visit in Northland are the cinema, a fruit shop and medicare. The rest of it has the same chain stores I can find in any other mall. The only mall I actual go out of my way to visit is Box Hill central because it is genuinely unique in Melbourne – it combines high streets, covered malls, open malls, train, tram and bus access and seems to be doing pretty well.

    As for Mall’s being safe for kids, that might be so, but they aren’t safe for parents who have to negotiate children’s rides strategically placed at every corner. I would hardly call underground carparks safe for kids though.

    I would also regard the malls like Northland a complete ripoff when it comes to eating due to the lack of competition and presumed stratospheric rents. The food court offers microwaved gunk at top dollar – neither healthy, tasty or interesting. It has a captive market and no competition so it doesn’t need to try harder – I doubt that is what the customers “want”.

    • Steven White says:

      Food courts in Oz are really depressing when compared to those found in upmarket Asian Malls.
      The latter offer far greater varieties of cuisine, often freshly prepared in front of you with a smile.

      What do you find here – a hamburger joint, a sandwich place, a chook BBQ and a fried rice spot? There have been some improvements locally such as at Chatswood Chase but even so it’s wanting.
      And that is aside from matters of better prices and healthier eating. One can only assume that Mall owners dictate the local market demographic to be provided for. It’s best to avoid our food courts.

  3. I think some of the objections made in the thread about retailing the other day apply here too. I think any talk of demonstrated preference by consumers is highly dubious because of the lack of genuine choice.

    Another objection to your argument is that you are framing it as purely about retailing. I would argue traditional strip centres more genuinely served and hosted a range of community uses than regional malls do.

    They also function better as all-hours centres: we’ve all had the experience of seeing a movie in a regional mall and then walking through an empty centre to get back to our car.

    • Alan Davies says:

      I’m going to post something soon on this issue of “revealed preference” – it keeps jumping up like a terrier. Should be an interesting discussion.

      Yes I’m talking (not ‘framing’ – that’s such a loaded term!) about shopping/retailing. I’m not “knocking” strips, they have a valuable role – but it’s evolved as a different one from regional malls. I’ve written a piece on strips which I’ll post shortly.

      • That’s fair enough, but a big part of the answer to your question “What’s so bad about regional malls” lies in the fact that they abdicate the many other roles that strip[ centres serve.

        • Alan Davies says:

          What’s the problem if regional stand-alone malls don’t serve the same roles as strips? There’re still plenty of strips within the established suburbs that provide non-retail jobs, housing and community facilities like libraries and child care centres. As long as there are strips to take on this more diverse role, why shouldn’t malls specialise in retail and personal services?

          • Well, a full justification would be quite an extended argument. But the short version is that I think this kind of over-specialisation makes for bad urbanism. I think a mix of uses (and rental values, and building ages, etc) makes for better places in all sorts of ways, and strip centres are more firmly part of that picture than malls.

            I realise this probably all sounds a bit touchy-feely and Jane Jacobsy, but I still think the basic philosophy is valid.

          • Alan Davies says:

            Hmm, interesting to think of the implications of extending that theory to other disciplines like education or health. Or even industry policy – no high tech clusters? No health industry cluster? Or to demography – no Cabramatta?

            I lean toward the idea that what we need is a diverse metropolitan area with some diverse areas within it (e.g. strips) but it’s neither desirable nor feasible to have diversity everywhere. Specialisation is an important engine of productivity.

  4. Simon says:

    Malls are a natural response to a car-saturated environment. Malls put a lot of shops close together in a car-free, pedestrian-oriented environment (if you ignore the carpark). They provide easy access by car in combination with effective insulation from the negatives of cars – danger, pollution and excessive distance between things.

    You could do the same in the high street, but you’d have to banish the cars and provide some other way (mass transit, cycling) for people to get there. I’d certainly prefer that, and I reckon many/most others would too, but that preference can’t be revealed en masse until the option is provided.

  5. rohan says:

    Ok so shopping centres arnt necessarily a planning evil, unless, as in the US sometimes, they result in the death of existing shopping strips, which in your next post Allen, I hope you will be noting, have many social advantages (un-privatised space, room for low rent odd places, integrated community services). Yes cars will be with us for ages to come, but a lot of shopping centres dont give anyone much of a choice, since usually there is only the infrequent local bus – Box Hill being the major exception, and Chadstone the major example (excuse me if Im showing ignorance of loads of bus using customers). Shopping centres are gradually including services other than shopping, but they have a long way to go before fulfilling any civic functions, acting as the centre of a community – in fact they probably never will because …. they are privatised space, so the owner will never allow any ‘disturbing’ experience. No homeless begging in a mall ! All a bit homogenising, and that is always a little dangerous, living your life without any social mixing. I guess the hybrid versions mentioned above can provide the best of both; some street based retail, public transport accessible, multi-use area, something with a sense of history and community, open to everyone, next to a convenient drive-in shopping centre. Frankston and Ringwood showing the way there. And my own background is Camberwell Junction, a place with large amounts of carparking, but also train and tram, large-area retailing next to strip shopping (with mostly the same chains found in shopping centres) but loads of other things as well. And a town hall and library, post office, etc etc.

    • rohan says:

      Sorry, Alan – misspelled again I think!

    • Alan Davies says:

      Rohan, I’m talking about regional malls like Northland, Doncaster, etc, in this post so the issue of ‘community’ isn’t the same as it would be if I were discussing smaller Major Activity Centres. I think it’s more common with MACs (like my local, Ivanhoe) to combine strip shops with a small hardtop centre.

      I might just add for now that those “low rent odd places” in strip centres only usually exist if the centre has passed its prime, probably because of the predations of a mall. You’re less likely to find them in strips that are doing well – you won’t find them in Hastings Street and probably not in Lygon Street anymore either.

      There’s nothing homogeneous about the customers at my regional mall (Northland) – I expect it has much more ‘variety’ in income, education, culture and ethnicity than you’ll find in Brunswick St. I don’t think the odd homeless beggar is a good measure of how heterogeneous a place is.

      • I’m not sure about the lack of “low rent odd places.” The fringes of even health strips still tend to have some tattier edges, and I suspect almost always have. Many strips have a notable dropping off at each end, or on cross streets, that allows for lower rent tenancies. Lygon Street represents an extreme in terms of propriety value, but even there this effect hasn’t quite died (eg on the side streets, notably along Elgin Street).

  6. Steve says:

    I’m surprised a blog espousing urbanism even asks this question. Maybe your moniker should become The Melbourne Sub-Urbanist. If public space in an urban setting is about choice and equity, then try running a protest march down one of the malls and see what happens. The issue about cars is relevant only in that malls re-allocate distribution costs of goods onto the consumer. The price at the checkout is only part of the cost to consumers and society, the externalities such as time, fuel, vehicle expenses, stress, crime (resulting from blank walls and car theft in mall parking lots – a favourite for theives). Malls also create economic shadows by reducing the economic viability of alternative typologies, also known as “category killers”.
    Because of the size of catchments for these things, they tend to be very widely spaced out, making driving there the only means of access unless you’re unfortunate enough to live near the blank walls and can cross the carpark by foot. If car access is locked in, where is the equity and choice in that? What about younger and older people or those without access to cars, I guess they just have to struggle with their weekly shop on the bus, when it finally arrives.
    Stephen Rowley your points were very relevant and well made.

    • Alan Davies says:

      Urban means city, it doesn’t mean inner city – it includes the suburbs where 90% of the population live. Nor does the term ‘urbanist’ define a particular ideological position.

      I get that you hate malls Steve. I however think there’s always value in exploring both sides of a story. There’s no point in anyone who’s only interested in having their prejudices reinforced reading this blog. If that’s what you want then this is not the place for you.

      I can’t address everyone’s concern in a short post – I’m bound to miss some. I did however make it clear in this case from the outset that I am talking about the role of malls in a “population that’s overwhelmingly car-based” and I do mention under disadvantages that they’re car-based.

  7. Michael says:

    “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.”
    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.”
    Are these facts or observations? My experience is that goods in malls aren’t that cheap – (cheaply made perhaps but not necessarily cheap to buy if compared with some street shopping). It might be true of some comparisons ie Burke road Camberwell versus Northland. I wonder what proportion of retail outlets are in malls versus high streets and other mixed malls. I’m not in the planning business so I’m not sure if this figure is available.
    My biggest criticism of Northland is that it is one centrally managed entity and once people go there they can’t realistically go anywhere else without getting in the car again. This makes it uncompetitive compared to connected malls where people can get something to eat outside the mall. I’m not sure of the history of Northland (having only lived in the area for 5 years), but is the fact that it doesn’t connect to anything intrinsic to it’s economics or an accident of history? Many other more interesting places have either competing malls or competing street shopping. The homogeneity of Northland also means that it’s operating hours are restricted because people are only there to shop or work in shops. If there was a significant public transport hub, office park or other amenities it wouldn’t be closing at 5pm on Saturday. Box Hill central or The Glen both have a significant number of restaurants open at night and have a better mix of activities.
    So do you include malls like Box Hill, The Glen, Forest Hill, Northcote in with the Malls or high streets and your contention that people prefer malls?

    • Alan Davies says:

      I’m talking about regional, stand-alone malls like Northland, not hybrid mall/strip centres (that would’ve been just too complicated).

      You can walk from Northland to the big-box centre and to Bunnings, they’re both directly over Murray Rd. No other eating establishments though (unless you’re partial to McDonalds or a sausage sizzle).

      Northland is perhaps not as interesting as a hybrid centre but it’s not obvious that the majority of patrons give a fig (revealed or unrevealed). It is however an important PT hub with a surprisingly high share of bus trips.

      I doubt you fit the definition of the average Northlander, Michael – you being a cyclist ‘an all – so maybe it’s not surprising you don’t find it very appealing.

  8. TomD says:

    “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”

    Any studies done into explaining levels of mall preference and patronage should probably specifically examine the relative importance of issues also mentioned like affordability, product diversity or availability and convenience.

    Because drawing on personal experiences (the old survey of one) as a potential test of their assumed ‘popularity’, when visiting a mall I will certainly look for better value (tick), product availability (tick) and convenience (tick) but I will also get the hell out of there as soon as I can. Suggesting that preference may not be really a meaningful term in this context and also that even their seeming popularity might potentially be explained by factors other than those figures alone might suggest.

  9. wizofaus says:

    Has anyone actually done any research into what it is about malls that “educated elites” *do* find depressing?
    I quite like visting them from time to time – more than an hour in any one is definitely enough, and out of the once every couple of months I might happen to do so, more often than not it’s because I’m in the area and they just happen to have a shop I have a particular reason to visit. Indeed, in the last couple of years I can think of only two occasions I’ve specifically made a trip from my house to a mall because it seemed like a good place to shop around for various things (plus one or two other occasions purely for the cinema). But I suppose if that was the behaviour of the bulk of the population most malls probably wouldn’t be commercially viable.
    I’d admit what probably bothers me the most is that there *are* so many people who genuinely seem to find malls such pleasant places to be that they visit them on a regular basis – but if it isn’t doing them any harm I suppose there’s not much point worrying about their personal preferences.

  10. rohan says:

    Good points steve, maybe malls are evil after all, or at least the opposite of ideal urbanism. Alan, yes the middle, outer and fringe suburbs are car-based, but that doesnt mean regional shopping centres are therefore somehow necessary or inevitable, they are esssentially a collection of chain stores conveniently next to each other, but especially convenient for the few owners who can charge what rental they like, find few planning barriers (will chadstone ever stop growing?), dont have to provide any public services, or even deal with the traffic jams around them, and are usually very very rich indeed. Smaller drive-in collections of shops also serve the car-based community but might be next to actual services, allow low-rent retail nearby, they’re mostly outdoors, and might even foster a sense of ‘the local shops’ where you might meet someone you actually know. A bit idealistic I know, but the bog owners do have a disturbing monopoly and total control.

    • Alan Davies says:

      “Few planning barriers” and “don’t have to provide any public services” or “deal with the traffic jams around them” are all failures in the planning system rather than anything intrinsically “wrong” or “evil” with the concept of malls. Likewise, “owners who are very, very rich” and “can charge what rental they like” is perhaps an issue for competition policy but it isn’t intrinsically a problem with malls.

      That considerably reduces your list of objections. So why not acknowledge the existence of malls (Chadstone’s 51 years old!!) and seek to use the planning system to combine them with “actual services”? And more of the new generation malls actually are “mostly outdoors” e.g. Waterfront Place (there’s also a very big newish “outdoor” one on Sydney’s north shore I went to about six years or so ago, but didn’t take note of its name). Also, people do meet up at malls, either by arrangement or accidentally – my son spends lots of time at Northland. Still leaves the low rent issue of course.

      On a different note, I knew beforehand that malls are one of those “take sides” issues, but I admit I’m surprised by the depth of the almost visceral hatred for malls on the part of some people – and I don’t just mean some commenters here, but also quite a few architects and planners I know. Like any issue, however, there’s always benefit in another POV.

  11. rohan says:

    Agreed, malls themselves can be improved, and certainly the planning context should be. And yes they do exist, so that is really the only way forward. But I havnt seen much evidence of any will to do so.

  12. […] from a consumer’s and an urbanist’s point of view. A week ago I took a general look at malls (What’s so bad about malls?) but what I want to look at here is a singular advantage that regional malls have over regional […]

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