TEXT | Shopping centres, dropping centres

Posted on 30/10/2009

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Both the idea and the material manifestation of shopping centres is equally repulsive and compelling. In more recent years, these monolithic structures seem to have attracted much commentary and attention as to their future viability and their design values. In the USA, shopping malls are failing at a significant rate, while others are being reinvented and reused. In a New York Times article (‘The Mall Goes Undercover: It now looks like a city street’, 6 April 2005), Andrew Blum observed that shopping malls – with remodelling and redesign – are being transformed as ‘lifestyle centres’ that replicate main streets and have more of a village or marketplace look and feel that often incorporates apartments. The promise is that residents can live, work and place in one place.

A similar trend is emerging in Australia and two spring to mind: Orion at Springfield Lakes and the Town Centre at Rouse Hill. Both are situated in outer suburban areas earmarked for growth and proximate to new residential developments that include a range of housing choices and densities. Rouse Hill, developed on a former golf course, includes retail, cinemas and banks, a purpose-built town square, main street, alfresco dining, library, community centre, office space and a pub. What this means is that facilities for local residents have been built before those 4500 people move in instead of the other way around (which is usually the case). I believe it also means the ‘town centre’ is owned and managed by a single private entity rather than by multiple vested private and public interests (that requires more investigation). By all accounts and appearances, it is a town centre. One of the things that I find a bit unnerving about these greenfield developments – and I’ve only visited Orion – is that they are all new and lack the history and mix that older and more established village centres have cultivated. Having said that, I also hope that they are more flexible with some structures being refurbished as community needs and demands change, giving them the kind of pastiche and texture that makes meaning and history, that is the stuff of change. This is not so readily achieved in those behemoth shopping centres which just seem to date, becoming increasingly inefficient and constrained. A newspaper report states that “the community played a large role in shaping its [the centre’s] design”. Even so, as Blum points out, “lifestyle centers are privately owned space, carefully insulated from the messiness of public life”.

Looking at the lists of tenants, the usual franchises, chains and department stores feature prominently. If this is the local shopping texture, then there needs to be some way of engaging those corporate retailers and other businesses (at all levels of their operation) to exact better social, local and environmental commitments from them. With this in mind, I am reminded that despite their environmental and design values, these developments remain pitched at an ever agressive, vapid and incessant consumerist value system that depletes social, cultural and environmental capital. And that, to me, is one of the big contradictions of these kinds of places – they endeavour to build social capital while also eroding it. Small scale, sustainable and innovative producers and traders seem to be beholden to exploitative distribution and supply networks or excluded from them. Some are able to gain a toehold in local markets and other fairer mechanisms for trade that promote local and community economic development.

Even so, changes in planning and service provision for suburban communities is a much needed and long overdue shift. What was our Council thinking when it approved significant extensions for Westfield Shopping Centre in Chermside with its even greater expanse of car park and only marginal engagement with the surrounding parklands and waterways? Blum writes that in the USA (and perhaps now in Australia) “shopping mall developers believe that lifestyle centers will improve the fortunes of medium-sized malls, which have been losing customers to the megamalls”. So while Chermside might supersize, other strategies warrant exploration in smaller sites. And then, why supersize when retailers are exploring more spatially compact and efficient formats, addressing how to sell rather than what to sell? A local convenience centre (an L-shaped island in an ocean of parking dating from the 1970s), Aspley Village, was demolished last year with a new and more compact development replacing it; opening on the cusp of the financial crisis meant several tenancies rolled over quite quickly and many shops remain vacant. But nevertheless, it represented a significant design shift and development approach in this area i.e. the parking is underground, the building addresses the street and includes a second storey.

aspley_2

There’s also a shopping centre in my suburb – the Aspley Hypermarket – which also features the hallmarks of ‘car park and monolith as design method’ approach.

scenes_from_street

While such town centre developments as Rouse Hill and Orion represent a welcome change in the design and integration of shopping centres in new developments (they also have significant community engagement programs), it leaves me wondering about how to advocate for change of those like the Hypermarket which has locked up land for a parking demand that does not exist and hasn’t existed since public transport provision began to provide an alternative to private car use and since other shopping centres sprouted in its original catchment area. It often seems that the car park is half (or less) full adding to the perception of the centre that it is half dead. Strategies for dealing with this include offer the car park for motorcycle licence lessons (a provider is a tenant) and to permit the builders of the McDonald’s HQ to park. However, the car park is also offered to the Council’s mobile library which visits every week.

aspley_figure_ground.FH11

One thing I do appreciate about this centre is that, even though there are chains and franchises, there is a fair smattering of locally owned and operated businesses – butcher, fruit shop (that sources regional/local produce), international food store (catering to a growing community of Asian and Indian residents), home decor, eateries, music shop and service providers (optometrist, doctor, Eastern medicine, massage). More recently a hearing centre and diabetes education centre have opened their doors. With the people drawn out of the older shopping area (which seems to hang off the banks, takeaways and real estate agents), those older stores hug the side of the highway – with several recent closures – awaiting the opening of McDonald’s HQ to bring more people into the locality. Incidentally, the McDonald’s HQ (below) sets new design standards in the area.

mcdonalds

During the construction period of this building a number of small local area improvements took place: (very ugly) seating in public places, a few trees planted on the main road, wayfinding, new rubbish bins. However, to the best of my knowledge, there wasn’t any community engagement about this to ascertain how residents wanted the area to improve or even, at the very least, a newsletter or signage letting us know why it was happening after so many decades of neglect. The improvements are so piecemeal, it does send the message that the area, particularly its people spaces, don’t warrant a higher order of care and community engagement. The approach at Aspley Village was quite different and more coherent and considerate. So I am left wondering, how the community can demand a more consistently responsible and engaged approach to this kind of land use and development in suburban areas, from the companies that own it, that professionals that design them and the authorities that allow it. Do we need groups like Deadmalls.com or projects like Flip a Strip?

It’s pleasing to see that some of the impacts of shopping centres are attracting comment and redress. For example, RMIT’s Centre for Design has released a report, Building Greener Shopping Centres: An introduction to sustainability for neighbourhood shopping centre developers.  In terms of community engagement, the document provides the following checklist:

  • The centre provides mixed-use outdoor spaces with adequate protection from the wind and weather
  • All outdoor spaces and interfaces with buildings designed to reduce risks to customer and worker safety and property damage
  • The transportation plan promotes public transport, and delivers good access to bicycle and walk paths, lockup facilities and sheltered stops and walkways
  • The centre provides excellent disabled and aged access
  • The centre will contribute to community development and expression through its design, amenity and by supporting organised activities.

‘Green leases’ are another way that some shopping centres are managing energy and environmental impacts. However, in terms of community development, for example, I am frustrated to see that shopping centres host early morning walking groups drawing people away from the creekside or greened walking paths in nearby parks/wildlife corridors with their abundant bird life and (probably) better air quality. This raises a small question about social responsibility, economic development and community development. It seems to result in the same inward looking focus that the architecture itself promotes, making the interior of the centre the locus of all activity and engagement rather than these absentee landlords being actively involved in broader community and social life. Instead of considering impacts and wellbeing in the community, they gear towards attracting people into the centre. Would, for example, such centres allow community actions like Park(ing) Day to take place as a means of educating communities about the importance of public spaces?

With these issues in mind, as part of my coursework this year, I undertook several studies of my local area with specific focus on the Hypermarket and surrounding area with a view to considering alternatives. The process left me asking – and unable to answer – a web of questions. How can communities pressure land owners sitting on established and wasteful land uses to change? How can we even pressure them to engage in a public conversation or social dialogue with the community about change? What facilitation might we feasibly expect from local authorities to promote responsible or equitable development in these circumstances? How can responsible development begin to infiltrate the approach to suburban transformation and promote new kinds of exchange, enterprise or trade? Is there just too much retail space in these low density environments? Exactly how necessary are some of these centres?

In a Planetizen report, PhD researcher Ava Bromberg proposes that many of the smaller centres bring goods and services to an area, but are ultimately of the greatest benefit to their owners who receive monthly rents but are not necessarily enmeshed in the local economy. Bromberg is “developing a new vision for small retail centers that would transform them into engines of social and economic capital at the neighborhood level”. Bromberg is focused on inner city neighbourhoods in the USA where there is a significant need. If in the hands of the communities, such centres are better able to fund community based initiatives and services including training and other enterprise development. It adds another layer to resourcing communities and building local assets and/or capacities. Another dimension of this proposal is also focused on activating and retooling disused or underused retail space and infrastructure for more than retail to introduce viable job creation and training opportunities and meet local needs. The retail industry is one of the largest employers in Australia but appears to provide predominantly low paid jobs fuelled on the floor by under-18s, so opportunities for growing local economies are constrained when significant amounts of capital are channelled outwards to land owners.

Shopping centres are inextricably enmeshed in our everyday lives. They are everpresent as physical structures and ever-beckoning as spectacle. In their promise of offering experiences, they seem to deliver an endless supply of the same. So when looking at alternatives, like the example of Market Creek Plaza in San Diego (which is a community owned shopping centre) and Bromberg’s research, there is a sting in the way shopping centres continue to be managed and the way retail chews up space. They – be they lifestyle centres or strip malls – enforce the rules of private property ownership and their managements often don’t encourage people to ‘hang around’. They aren’t designed as community spaces and access to them is somewhat provisional: this is particularly evident in the way young people continue to be excluded or moved on. In general, shopping centres are designed to be things that they are not: Gruen’s landmark centre endeavoured to emulate the downtown shopping experience in the suburban context; purportedly offering choice, the same retailers prevail and prosper everywhere in ‘everymall’. In this respect, the provision of shopping centres, as privatised spaces, does not equate with the provision or design of ‘public space’. Further, without these centres, there could well be a great lack of things to do or places to go in suburban communities. However, bringing people together to shop does not equate with bringing people together as a community or bringing people together ‘in the marketplace’. Richard Ingersoll (Sprawltown) cites examples in Florence, Italy, and Santa Monica, USA, where residents were able to secure public spaces and community experiences resulting in a ‘more real’ civic experience and this raises the issue of authenticity. Shopping centres are indeed perplexing – so pervasive that it is difficult to imagine other possibilities. As Meaghan Morris wrote in 1999, “shopping centre identities aren’t fixed, consistent or permanent”. They are the target of highly contentious and contradictory assertions about consumerism and community, public and private space, economic development and degeneration, freedom and control, fake and real, diversity and sameness … Mapping innovation and cultural change in this shaky terrain is fraught, indicating how ideological our thinking about innovation can be in our urban environments and how alternatives can be closed off.

Postscript

The study that I undertook about the Aspley Hypermarket led to me to think about different uses in the area. The area is about 12 km from the city, surrounded by suburban development including gated estates, aged care and retirement facilities, McMansion estates, a small townhouse development, a small amount of social housing, older family home residential developments (particularly built in the1970s and postwar periods) and the like. With some highrise (10 or so storeys) proposed for a neighbouring site (where caravan parks are currently located) and a busway proposed to run along the main road (potentially resulting in road widening and reclamation of property including residences and businesses), it seemed that the underused car park of the Hypermarket had the potential to be redeveloped as a more walkable, integrated and connected/ing ‘town centre’ with revived business and community orientation, drawing the focus of the centre away from the highway and across the secondary main road running through the area. This more compact centre would then provide a better environment for the local area’s significant aged population to socialise as well as other social/community/cultural spaces where the community is better able or equipped to self-organise. The opportunity here is to undertake a place management approach. In other words, to chart a ‘social recovery’ by investing in social and urban change. In terms of business cluster, given the local area’s significant trades population and the desperate need to promote cultural change in relation to housing ‘products’ and suburban lifestyles, I proposed that this could emerge as a centre for sustainable construction with a focus on place based ‘green skilling’ or ‘skills for sustainability’ (see Dusseldorp Skills Forum), e.g. retrofitting, sustainable design and environmentally friendly refurbishment, representing a shift away from big box stores and aggressive consumerism. In other words, the knowledge and economic base of the suburb is geared towards renegotiating the very nature and logic of the suburb. By making links to other local education centres – the high school and the (currently empty) university campus, there was potential to engender a training and learning profile within the community (and on the northern corridor of Brisbane) that was focused on new enterprise and economic development. Another opportunity, which I haven’t explore in depth, is to leverage the area’s cultural diversity. Either way, there is a need to introduce new memes for/of suburban life. To my mind this could create the conditions for a different kind of local and sustainable prosperity. Could or would Council facilitate or negotiate a change like that (regulatory, planning, policy) and would the local community accept that kind of change?

Notes

See also Retrofitting Suburbia (on facebook), Big Box Reuse, Arup Suburban Retrofit, Reburbia – all these initiatives are American/international and, to date, I’ve not found any major initiative working in Australia to investigate suburban transformation. However, some Transition Town hubs and university based research projects, such as the University of Western Sydney’s Futures West, are addressing suburban issues.
If you are interested the Shopping Centre Council of Australia has taken up a range of issues including planning and youth engagement.

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