Lessons from a Mall

I love the mall. Yes, they’re horrible. They’re destructive. They’re a remnant of the car-centric, sprawl-centric, mid- to late-century city planning and I hate going to them, but whatever. In my hear, I love the mall. I’m a child of the ’80s. The opening scene from Fast Times at Ridgemont High is nirvana.

Anyway, I had to go to the Rideau Centre the other day. I used to go there a lot. Maybe I was shopping or hanging out…mostly I was cutting through between the Market or Rideau Street and the Transitway. In the past few years, it’s changed a lot…and I haven’t really been going very much during or since those changes. I still have a general idea of where a bunch of stores are, but I really couldn’t say I know my way around.

This is a potential drawback of malls, especially ones like the Rideau Centre. With so many levels, hallways, entrances and access ways, it can be easy to get turned around in there.

The thing is, though, I didn’t get lost, at all, nor have I in a few other recent trips. In part, it’s because I still know my basic way around, but it’s more than that. The Rideau Centre has built in really good wayfinding. The maps and digital kiosks are easy to use and pretty clear as to how to get somewhere. The sightlines within the mall are getting better, so it’s easy to peer down one little branch to figure out if that’s where you’re headed. Perhaps the most important aspect, though, is the signage they put up.

After I running my errand, I decided to grab some lunch. At this point, I had basically no idea where to go. I’d been to the new food court before, but I wasn’t totally sure how to get there from the wing I was in (which was also fairly new, or at least a new layout). Having long ago abandoned any sense of shame about looking for directions, I decided to head for one of those kiosks.

However, before I got there, I noticed a sign overhead pointing me toward the “dining hall” or whatever they’ve re-branded the food court as. Obviously, signs are a really good, basic form of wayfinding, but there were a couple of things that I noticed. First of all, the signs fell clearly in my line of sight. I did not have to look for them…I wasn’t looking for them. There’s a lot going on in a mall and it’s easy to miss things, but these caught my eye.

But they also didn’t…in a good way. While they were very visible, clear and eye-catching, they also blended in with the mall. They’re tucked up high, with simple colours. They’re not adding to the visual clutter or cacophony of lights and pictures and movement swirling around the corridor. Though they didn’t sacrifice function for form, their form was just right.

I was reminded of a little project a friend did a few years ago. She started putting up her own little wayfinding signs, mostly along walking and biking routes (“Buy fresh croissants–only 200m that way”). She didn’t have permission and the mayor publicly scolded her, but it was a good and useful project. (Cities often have these hidden little things–an alleyway with cool shops, a pathway that’s a safe and convenient shortcut between neighbourds–that are great once you know about them but can be insanely hard to find otherwise.)

Wayfinding is incredibly important to good city-building. Signage–good, clear, uncluttered signage–is a big help, but better is when you’re just guided through an area. When you can see down streets. When there are landmarks to help you get and remain oriented. When you can remember which direction you’re going and which you came from. It seems the new Rideau Centre is doing a good job on wayfinding.

(Granted, it was one trip, so maybe I just go lucky.)

This led me to think more about the layout of the mall and how it reflects city-building (because everything has to come back to your job at some point, right?). The realization is that people who build malls have an innate understanding of city-building…though they clearly don’t know it.

The storefronts tend to small and tightly packed together. There’s a cadence to it. There are multiple attractions, bringing different people with different needs into one small area. They lend themselves to doing multiple errands at once, and give people a chance to make impulse decisions about shopping or dining or entertainment.

This is what a thriving street needs. We don’t need blocks that are one long storefront. That’s not walkable. It’s not engaging. It doesn’t serve street diversity.

Now, of course, in a mall and in a city, you do need larger institutions. You need grocery stores and department stores and schools and apartment buildings…but you can incorporate these things in smartly.

You can take something like H&M that basically has multiple store fronts, as well as multiple levels, giving it the cadence (the women’s and men’s departments almost look like different storefronts) and reducing it’s horizontal footprint by going vertical. It’s also tucked in an area where the storefronts are rounded, so they can open up to a bigger area once you go in.

And these bigger stores, these anchors, can be a draw. These components (like, say an arena) can draw larger groups, but they’re still fit within the general fabric of their environment. Nordstrom’s is a large store, but it hasn’t overwhelmed or cannibalized the mall.

Malls are inherently walkable (well, maybe not something like Tanger, but the older malls). The owners understand this, and do what they can to make you want to walk through the mall. It’s more than just diversity (though having stores and coffee shops and restaurants and all that is important); it’s simple things like benches.

Being able to just sit is important. Being able to take a rest, or wait for someone, or check your phone, or establish a meeting place for friends is important. Malls want you to linger. It’s not loitering (a terrible, classist, bullshit offence); you’re just hanging out.

Good city spaces get this. Public parks, parkettes, street furniture, public amenities…these all give people places to just be. These are what become people places (and people places are the places that strive). These days, we’re running out these spaces. Most “public” space is now commercial–coffee shops, bars, etc. These are useful, but we need public spaces that don’t charge admission.

Ironically, malls–so steeped in commercialism and consumerism–offered that. Why the hell do you think so many kids would spend their days hanging out at the mall?

Transportation within the mall was also enlightening. The Rideau Centre has a direct link to LRT and it still has buses running along the bridge and Rideau Street on either side. Most malls that I would go to had bus service, and the bus stops generally took right up near a door.

It’s ironic, again, that an institution that was so wedded to car-centric development actually prioritizes transit access. I was reminded of Barcelona’s super blocks (okay, yeah, I know, this is a bit of a stretch). The super blocks are made up of 9 smaller blocks have varying degrees of access (IIRC). Cars drive around the super blocks, and are maybe allowed to go in, but not through (basically just to drop off or pick up). Buses go through the super blocks, and then in the centre it’s pedestrians.

This is kind of like malls. Yes, there are parking garages attached (sometimes), but transit tends to get you closer to your actual door, and pedestrians get to walk in and through. (Obviously, malls with big parking lots don’t let pedestrians get there easily and the Rideau Centre fails for bike access…I told you this was a bit of a stretch).

It’s interesting. An institution that tends to be so destructive to city-life and the urban experience has actually internalized so many of the lessons of good urbanism. This doesn’t mean they’re good actors. It doesn’t mean they aren’t parasitic. And it certainly doesn’t mean that they aren’t the heartless capital class exploiting people’s insecurity through consumerism while destroying the communities in which those very same people live…it’s just another data point showing us what good, intentional city-building looks like.

It also means that if you’re looking, there are lessons to be learned even in the most unexpected places.

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