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Will the Vanishing Third Places Add First-Life to the Shopping Malls?

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With the growing mall culture, shopping centres have become an integral part of our routine life. While home and work are the first and second places, respectively, shopping malls have definitely become the third place in our lives. Encouraging such “third places” in our community can really be fruitful for both mall developers and the community as a whole
It is true that parks, downtowns, waterfronts, plazas, neighbourhoods, streets, markets, campuses, public buildings or shopping malls all are related to each other. The thread that runs through them is the “community.” All these are derived from the community and they all point to the community itself. A space for the people, of the people and substantially by the people. But where is the space for community to come, enjoy, meet, greet and mingle together. “What suburbia cries for are the means for people to gather easily, inexpensively, regularly, and pleasurably — a ‘place on the corner’, real life alternatives to television, easy escapes from the cabin fever of marriage and family life that do not necessitate getting into an automobile,” (quotes by Ray Oldenburg, who is an urban sociologist from Florida).
And when contextually put together, the most relevant abode today is the shopping centre, the mall or the entertainment hub. Much similar to what civic centres were to old settings. Every neighbourhood has it, every town boasts of it, and every city takes pride in it. But then too, we all know that few malls are successful and others are hardly any. Time and again, we have only read about articles focussed on increasing retail, additional shop fronts, novel marketing ideas, so on and so forth. But every time a new idea is born only with a perspective of “how to take from the community.” Let’s look from the other end of pincenez – how about giving back to the community?
Shopping centre is largely an American concept. The growth of the shopping centre industry there has been well documented (Maitland B., 1976, Design and Planning of Retail Systems London; and Ghosh and McLafferty, 1987, Location Strategies for Retail and Service Firms). It is thus appropriate to use American studies as a basis for identifying the five stages of shopping centre developments. An Australian firm has presented their studies in form of a research paper.
The first style of shopping centre, such as Raleigh in America in 1949, while essentially reflecting a traditional retail strip format, was centrally managed with a uniformly themed appearance. Similar to that of our Crawford Market, Fort or APMC market, New Bombay at their onset. While doing so, plain availability of similar nature goods was the sole purpose. It was like a special economic zone (SEZ) in itself, with specific agenda of variety of goods.
In these climate controlled consumer spaces that were a set formula for shopping alone, a further element of leisure and/or entertainment dimension was incorporated. Cinemas, cafes, children’s amusements and the provision of entertainment such as live performances and fashion parades became integral part of added subsumptions in the third stage. With time, improvisations set in. Which was first added as mere inclusion, later on strived for specialisation. Shopping centre managers sought different approaches, such as the themed restaurants, theme parks, much larger cinema complexes and a greater focus on food (according to a study by Maitland, 1976). Fourth stage is characterised by specialisation with centres focussing on one particular retail 0area, such as fashion, bulky goods, furniture, home and garden, food or convenience, often in a large-format retail. There is no longer an assumption that centres will provide a one-stop shopping service, but rather they cater for a segmented and highly mobile consumer population. Here is where “retail” became important and omnipresent. Though India is still riding this wave high, rest of the world is grossly ahead with mixed-use developments.
Essentially, work-live-play all together! And currently it has taken the path of mixed-use developments, such as factory outlets, cinema and food, or office, residential and convenience goods. Giant cities in Hongkong, China, Singapore, parts of US and UK have various examples of successful implementation of such composite model. This business, architectural or utility model may not be implemented to its true potential in existing dense cities or suburbs of India. But we can certainly think of its application in new mall planning schemes.
The chart below, as a conclusion of charted growth graph of different features along with evolution of shopping centres, shows an interesting observation. It indicates the importance and relevance of the social factor around which the key shopping centre experience revolves. We can see that only at inception stages of a shopping mall it was low. But ever since, it has always been rising and is currently high! It is also visible that the retail experience is forever high. For obvious known reasons – of generating income for the developer or promoter of mall and equally contributing to the elite mall experience of shopping in style and spirit! The social aspect relates to the idea of being a communal meeting space. It allows for the social dimensions of participating in a community recreational activity, for seeing and being seen, for meeting and passively enjoying the atmosphere. This experience can be elevated with profusely providing for open spaces, green spaces, water bodies and landscaped areas in-and-around the shopping mall premises. These will not only breathe a new life into the environmental social fabric of the community but also enhance the overall coming-to-the-shopping-mall experience. The dearth of community spaces in overall scheme of things, for existing land use layouts and even new proposals, makes the mall space an apt contender to provide for in ample proportions.
This essentially draws us to the preface of our design solution. The creation of such common, collective spaces hereon referred to as “third places.” “Most needed are those ‘third places’ that lend a public balance to the increased privatisation of home life. Third places are nothing more than informal public gathering places. The phrase ‘third places’ derives from considering our homes to be the ‘first’ places in our lives, and our work places the ‘second’.” Oldenburg in his book The Great Good Place, Oldenburg demonstrates why these gathering places are essential to community and public life. He argues that bars, coffee shops, general stores, and other “third places” (in contrast to the first and second places of home and work), are central to local democracy and community vitality.
This brings us to another new concept in mall design “placemaking,” which is internationally applied for quality of experience enhancement. “‘Placemaking’ is both an overarching idea and a hands-on tool for improving a neighbourhood, city or region. It has the potential to be one of the most transformative ideas of this century” – Metropolitan Planning Council of Chicago.
It is a multi-faceted approach to planning, design and management of mall spaces and thereby effectively public spaces. It is both a process and a philosophy. It takes root when a community expresses needs and desires about places in their lives, even if there is not yet a clearly defined plan of action. And as design leaders of our community, it is the architect’s responsibility to know the needs and provide accordingly. Helping hand from the policy makers could channelize the efforts uniformly. The yearning to unite people around a larger vision for a particular place is often present long before the word “placemaking” is ever mentioned. Once the term is introduced, it enables people to realise just how inspiring their collective vision can be and allows them to look with fresh eyes at the potential of parks, downtowns, waterfronts, plazas, neighbourhoods, streets, markets, campuses and public buildings. To the above list of places, we might even want to add shopping malls, which have become inseparable part of our routine lives. Then it will spark an exciting re-examination of everyday settings and experiences in our lives.
Taking this discussion a little further, we try to experiment with a traditional, conservative but time-tested mall functions pyramid.
The hypermarkets act as anchors for the mall at bottom and cinema with foodcourt at top, attracting as major crowd pullers. Subsequently, they help disperse the crowd to in-between floors, following an anticipated traffic path. The revenue generation and hence distribution is also in relative proportions. But if we experiment with a flip of crown and root activities, we might stumble upon an indigenous model, which is at the pinpoint of innumerable permutations.
This can very well work out few combinations with “third places” such as food in connection with open, semi-open or landscaped spaces. A water body or fountains spruce up the space to add the much needed breathing space back in social-urban context. The network of paved sideways or informally called the ‘‘desire paths” due to their rare sight in a typical urban scenario, invite people to pause, enter, experience and walk or gather rather than pushing them away and avoiding cumbersome places. A well-planned plaza, landscaped and maintained for, helps give people more than one reason to pass through the mall precinct. An amphitheatre connecting to the mall promenade will spruce up the space for activities scheduled for evening and running into a vibrant night life, after peak hours. Filling the environment with vivid and vivacious enhancements will definitely give more to the community, something that people in today’s urban settings should be prescribed for. And as we know it, a designer’s responsibility is to provide for a space that can be used for 10 activities, but experience says, the user always outdoes the provider, with 10,000 new ways to use it, in-and-around! It’s not a discovery, neither is it something out-of-the-blue. There’s no need to re-invent the wheel… all we have to do is turn it backwards to make the new! To understand the why (the change?) followed by the what (should be changed?), we will automatically shake hands with the how (to achieve it?) and realise it, that all this while the solution was right under our nose!
The change in perspective of a mall design, from its native stand-alone entity towards its all-encompassing community initiative, points towards the essential functions of mall design, viz, affinity, strike rate and community bonding. The pulverisation of a break through idea hinges upon its ideal break up to achieve a win-win situation for all. It’s a  multifarious approach starting from outside-to-inside-and-back-out! Encouraging such “third places” in our communities can reap real diagonal benefits. The placemaking from a socio-architectural setting to the internal-bound experience is a spectrum of initiatives – ones that are waiting to be realised to change design dynamics.

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