Chancellor Philip Hammond is considering measures to allow town centre properties to be used for residential development. The “doughnut” effect, the process whereby town centres have been hollowed out as businesses have moved to out of town centres, has left countless premises lying empty. The chancellor’s logic, with which it would be hard to disagree, is that it is better that buildings provide homes than are left in a state of gradual decay.
How did the process begin? How did we come to prefer the mostly uniform shopping centres to the heterogeneous high streets? The rise of the shopping malls seems to have come with the rise of shopping as a leisure activity.
When living in Northern Ireland, it used to be said that the shopping centres appeared not as marketing devices, but as a response to terrorism. As bombs tore the hearts out of towns and cities, retailers located in out of town sites; sites that had ample car parking for an increasingly mobile population and sites that were more easily secured against attack than shops that fronted onto streets with passing traffic. In Belfast the security response was to close the city centre shopping streets to traffic, but the malls became well established. Living in Newtownards in Co Down in the 1980s, the shopping centre became a meeting place; it was warm and welcoming with a string of cafes and an abundance of benches. In a later age, the writer a social commentator Naomi Klein would criticize the development of such places and complain about the loss of public space, but at the time it represented a haven from the world outside.
The shopping mall has now become the first choice for many people, for shopping, for eating, for entertainment. The mall represents a safe place, an environment protected against the excesses of drink and drug abuse that mark parts of cities. There is no danger of meeting youths drinking and cursing their way through the streets, and no danger of getting threatened by someone looking for money. In our failure to secure our streets, we have driven people indoors. The malls reassure because they are predictable; before one goes through the automatic doors, it would not be hard to list the stores one expects to find. The mall enables shopping as leisure.
Sadly the mall also threatens. Malls have little place for small independent stores. These do not fit with the slick, label oriented clientele sought by the proprietors. Malls are a vision of globalized heaven (or hell, according to one’s perception). If the high street is going to become something other than a site for new homes, it needs a vigorous reinvention.