By Surendra Hiranandani
We dream of cities that are culturally rich, well-managed, unsoiled, congestion free, have impeccable administration, with access to easy mobility. We love cities which are filled with vitality, great infrastructure and blessed with beautiful landscapes like rivers, beaches, lakes, hills etc. Striking physical features undoubtedly make a city beautiful and attractive, but it is the kind of people living there and their openness towards multiple cultures that makes a city lively and vibrant.
Standalone structures like malls are basically an extension of gated community concept which usually encases people into an enclave. When we say a mall, the whole focus is being inside and once you’re through, you head home. A mall typically is in an isolated place away from a high street where people drive in from miles, not walk to the mall, which creates horrendous traffic jams putting stress on civic infrastructure. Most of us have had such an experience while going to a popular mall in the city.
Shopping malls typically disconnect people from activities that are simultaneously happening in the city. It’s almost like imprisonment of something which should be very social. A building having a compound wall, with beautiful flowers has nothing to do with the streets beyond adding some visual cleanliness and manicure. There’s very little excitement you can get from just seeing landscaping and gardens in the mall. You need the high street shopping to provide life to the street along with the restaurants and coffee shops to hangout. That’s why most successful cities across the world allow local businesses to put a few chairs and tables on to the sidewalk. This activity is encouraged because it adds life to the street.
High street shopping encourages local entrepreneurs who create a distinct character for the city. People have their own niche and each offer authentic local cuisines, chocolates, products etc from local produce. This can never be replicated in a mall as big conglomerates tend to crowd out the smaller players. Also, high maintenance costs and overheads deter budding entrepreneurs from setting shop there.
Large format stores like Wal-Mart are not permitted to buy or rent retail space in large cities across the world as they destroy small and medium retail. It is these enterprises that provide security to the streets making them zestful and safe for walking.
High street provides far more nuances, formats, variations for ownership and it really gives that color to the street. High Street retail also makes city safe as there is no way one can police a city by sheer cameras or policemen. Across the world whether it’s New York, Singapore, Hong Kong, Tokyo etc, all of them are successful cities that have vibrant street culture and people enjoy being there. Oxford street in London is more congested with pedestrians during peak hours than any street in India, and still tourists want to throng and flock there. This is precisely because the distribution of shops along the streets of the city gives it a phenomenal character and a mystique soul that cannot be replicated elsewhere. Once you build the malls, you take away the high street. However, even today if you see old cities in India, they have always encouraged high street shopping which is not the case now.
It is imperative for developers and planners to step away from creating isolated spaces like malls and instead focus on creating communities. If one creates a mall, it will create a dense activity at one spot within the community, which would encourage the use of the private automobile because even if it’s a relatively short distance people are encouraged to go by car. If there are shops along the street you are encouraged to walk alongside and enjoy the experience because you will move from one place to another without any insecurity or boredom. That’s why you see in New York today, people love to walk and the people who live in so-called crowded, congested New York are the healthiest people in United States because they enjoy their walk.
People should have access to free mobility, to move around easily around vicinity rather than walking only along the edge of a street. One should encourage people to walk within a city rather than using a mechanized transport. These city sidewalks, the city footpaths, the city pedestrian walkways provides soul and life to a city, not enclosed areas where pedestrians hangout. If you take away the high street shopping and put them into malls, you are taking away the life and soul of all street life which is the most essential factor in making a city look beautiful, lively and happening.
(The author is CMD of House of Hiranandani)