The design of the modern shopping centre might go back to the 1950s in the USA but rapidly became a global phenomenon, varying in scale, focus and location, from local neighbourhood malls to out-of-town super-regional centres. In the UK the majority of shopping centres are located within our cities in close proximity to, or sometimes with frontage directly onto, the prime pitch of the traditional High Street although in the 1980s and 1990s there was an explosion of out-of-town centres developed before the presumption against new out-of-town shopping centres was adopted in planning policy. Few in-town shopping centres have been built in the last decade and the view that there is an oversupply of retail in many locations has seen increasingly fewer projects enter the pipeline although there are still examples of existing centres undergoing refurbishment and change.
Until recently, in-town shopping centres tended to be designed around the same four basic principles as the early USA malls. The first of these was to design centres as a single building with access points in the outer boundary wall that enabled the centre to link into the existing network of shopping streets while providing a secure enclosed environment. The second basic feature in their design was to provide suitable large units for anchor retailers, typically a department or large variety stores such as Debenhams, John Lewis or Marks and Spencer, that were carefully located to draw in footfall from the surrounding streets and through the centre while a third element of their design was to provide points of attraction, such as food courts and customer services, to encourage shoppers to move up and down through multi-level centres and increase customer dwell time. The fourth principle was to provide a large car park, either as part of the centre or as an adjoining property integrated via lifts and walkways, to attract car dependent shoppers. The end product of these design principles was a highly controlled environment that enclosed and protected privatised urban space that was easy to manage. The results, however, could also be described as fortresses that tended to be inward looking and detached from the surrounding neighbourhood. Occasionally an element of ground floor retail was designed to front on to surrounding shopping streets but the size, layout and location of the site often limited the amount of retail frontage with dead frontage not uncommon on the side and rear boundaries of the centre, disconnecting parts of the city.
Retailers were drawn to locate within these centres by the regular shaped units which High Street properties could not provide. They also preferred the bespoke sized units that centre managers could carve for them, and it was common for national retailers, well that was before the rise of omni-channel retailing, to have multiple stores spread across a number of centres within a single city or town. Shoppers also loved the convenience these centres offered. They provided a warm, dry environment and everything they desired within short walking distance – a good mix of multiple retailers, coffee shops, food, parking and children facilities so they could drive to the centre, park, shop, eat and drive home again without going out into the rain or cold, often at the expense of the traditional High Street as shoppers rarely ventured beyond the centre where they parked.
Many of these centres are now struggling. Partly, because retailers have cut back on the number of units occupied within a town or city. Partly, because these enclosed spaces are costly to heat and maintain so the high service charges add to the total occupancy cost burden that many retailers, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, struggle to afford. Replacing old plant equipment in centres now more than 35 years old with more energy efficient equipment helps keep down running costs but service charges on top of business rates, rent and rising employment costs remain an ever-present issue for occupiers.
This fixation on operational costs may explain the new era that appears to have evolved in shopping centre design and development. Gone are the enclosed spaces with continuous solid boundary walls. Sometimes physical barriers are still present but cleverly hidden, often making use of existing structures, for example, the Ropewalks boundary of Liverpool One; sometimes they exist merely as visual barriers and signage that identify the shopping centre area. As a result these centres are much better integrated into the existing streetscape. Much more outward facing and inclusive of the surrounding shopping streets as they enable shoppers to move almost seamlessly from centre to High Street and back. The St James Quarter in Edinburgh, one of the few shopping centres currently under construction, is the epitome of this revised design philosophy. Still privatised space, the new centre provides open inter-connecting walkways that link a mix of shops and other structures with the neighbouring streets under a glass canopy to protect shoppers from the harsh Scottish elements. Another example of an open air shopping development in Edinburgh is Multrees Walk. Designed as a linear parade of shops it looks and feels like a typical high street but is in fact privatised and policed space, which in time will link George Street to the new St James Quarter.
Inner city shopping centres also no longer rely on retail to generate traffic. St James Quarter and Liverpool One are both relatively new mixed use developments but we are seeing established centres, built decades ago, being adapted into mixed use space with leisure facilities, such as cinemas and competitive social facilities, for instance crazy golf, bowling alleys and the latest trend – axe throwing – accompanying the reduced mix of shops. Food courts are still present but children play areas, event space and rest areas work together to increase shoppers dwell time, and more restaurants and public houses are being incorporated to support evening leisure use as well as provide a more diverse shopping experience that reaches out to a wider range of customers. We are even seeing the design of facades being altered to accommodate these new uses as well as provide a modernised facelift for ageing centres such as on the east side of the St Enoch Centre to accommodate the repurposing of a former BHS store into a Vue Cinema and restaurants. The replacement of dead frontage with glass to create a more welcoming facade was planned for the Broadmarsh redevelopment before the collapse of Intu. Hopefully Nottingham City Council, following the demolition of this out-dated and dominating structure, will prioritise reconnecting the south side with the city centre as part of the transformational plans that will be announced in due course.
The repurposing and redesigning of ageing shopping centres have become crucial in their survival as the contraction in demand for retail space that was experienced pre-COVID pandemic is unlikely to have changed post-COVID. We face social distancing restrictions for the foreseeable future but in time leisure activities will be re-established in society. Then these changes to shopping centres will contribute to the much needed diversity of our urban centres, playing an important role in the reinvigoration of local economies. For now the car park dead frontages seem to be the one original design principle that endures but as more zero emissions zones are created in our inner cities and more city visitors are encouraged to use active forms of transport, even that looks set to change in the not too distant future.