Once seen by many, particularly local councils, as a fashionable ‘must have’, and a perceived status symbol in an era where the only alternative to traditional high street shopping was a Kays catalogue our love affair, some 30 years later, with the Scottish Shopping Mall is waning.
These fortress-like buildings, are insular in nature and, at best, icons of architectural mediocrity. They tend to disregard the surrounding built environment, save for a few conveniently located pedestrian entrances, commonly having hundreds of car parking spaces either located on the roof or adjacent in purely functionalist multi-story appendages. Designed for convenient retail therapy and nothing else these buildings have little interaction with our high streets and communities.
There is no doubt the introduction of the shopping mall has created a headache for the town centres in which they sit and contribute greatly to the demise of our high streets. Often parachuted in, at the expense of whole streets and beloved landmarks, these ‘temples to retail’ inadvertently discourage exploration beyond their walls and entice the shopper with convenience, internalised streets and predictable climatic conditions.
Many of our town centre shopping malls were built between the 1970’s and 1990’s. In the noughties, we witnessed a misguided planning system promoting out of town retail developments, blissfully ignorant of the warning signs from across the Atlantic as to the side effects. These new retail developments were exciting and brought new retail experiences to the masses with many brands being offered. Combined with the ever expanding suburbs, it is easy to understand how our traditional high street has been squeezed over the decades sending it into a spiral of potential terminal doom.
The rapid deterioration of many traditional shopping streets is no better illustrated by the rows of vacant units, low quality tenants and charity shops. Our shopping malls display the same symptoms. The high street experience is at serious risk of becoming obsolete with shops continuing to close, new starts failing, banks closing branches and an alarming number of household names being permanently assigned to the annals of retail history.
We need to find a 21st Century version of the high street. One that includes the shopping mall as the heart of our towns are too fragile economically to withstand the years of development and disruption needed to replace them. For this to happen we need to have a single vision which means the local authority, the developer, the retailer and other stakeholders have to put aside their own agendas and work together. We need to regenerate our existing buildings and town centres to fashion community orientated environments that encourage the historical mix of culture, commercial, residential and social uses. Now is the time as town centre living is appropriate for our modern lifestyle.
It has been said the high street was once the social glue that held our communities together and through its decline this has been lost. Not so. Our community is changing, it always does but now our high street must change too.