Joburg’s mall malaise

Just the thing that Johannesburg’s northern suburbs need, another shopping mall. But the Mall of Africa is not just any mall. It is touted as “South Africa’s largest shopping mall ever built in a single phase.” Judging by the hype and excitement surrounding its grand opening and the sheer volume of people parked on the N1 highway wanting to be part of the elite group of consumers to walk the mall’s artificial car-free streets, you would be forgiven for thinking people came from all parts of the continent to visit it.

Could this mall be the new icon of the Johannesburg landscape and just the kind of injection our economy desperately requires? Or is it one step closer to a perpetually divided and unequal society?

Large scale retail developers have become a major player in the South African property industry, and competition is stiff between them. The pressure is on to develop the biggest and best mall with the hottest range of international retail offerings. Enter the latest and most prestigious version, a mall intended to be so different and unique that it claims to be representative of the entire African continent.

The reality is that no matter the name or the marketing push, malls are a dime a dozen. Yet, every new mall captures our minds and piques our interests: we expect something innovative.

South Africa is a country obsessed with malls and all that they symbolise. Malls are the playgrounds of the vehicle oriented city and I am convinced that their parking lots could win awards for storing the highest number of SUVs that have never seen the off-road terrain for which they are designed. Malls are perhaps the most illustrative symbols of the harsh, impersonal car based cities we have become captive to — so often without interrogation of how we ended up here.

There once was a time in human history where the buildings that we celebrated most had spiritual meaning or civic importance. These were the public buildings, parks, plazas and markets that people headed to in their free time to relax and interact. How far we have ventured to become an urban society that marvels at the cut-and-paste monotony that is privatised shopping mall developments, coated in shiny façades and so cleverly marketed by property development tycoons and large retailers.

Isn’t there now enough evidence to suggest that this approach to economic development and city building might not be a good one? Mall developments claim to be economic catalysts and saviours of local economies, helping drive development in poor areas of the city. But have you ever stopped to consider who really benefits from these developments — where the actual profits end up?

I think malls are indicative of the larger structural issues within the South African economy because despite job creation sentiment I doubt it is local manufacturers, small businesses and the local communities who are bearing the fruits of mall investment. Rather I think malls very successfully entrench existing wealth, and drive the increasing consumer based economy and ever rising household indebtedness.

As for what these places mean for our urban living experience: it is interesting to consider that ‘city living’ for so many families is nothing more than an interaction with privatised, gated estates, where they live, and mall developments accessed via a metal capsule on wheels. What is perhaps most sad is that this isolated cocoon-based existence is deemed to be the best and most prosperous way to live in ‘the city.’

Yet, the promises of good city living are so much more than this. Are we not missing out on those special, unpredictable moments which come from walking in a city and experiencing all that city life has to offer? Imagine living in places with vibrant street life and busy sidewalks, or frequently witnessing the unscripted theatre that is every day park life. Does this not offer the opportunity to subtly build much needed trust in our deeply divided society?

You might or might not be aware that urban planners in the City of Johannesburg are conjuring up a different kind of approach to building the city. It’s dubbed the Corridors of Freedom and from my reading it is a deliberate effort to halt the path of shopping mall havens, by building more walkable and intimate areas in the city it more closely resembles the European cities we admire for their celebration of civic life. Let’s be clear, these areas are publicly accessible streets in existing communities served by public transport systems with no gated or controlled access. They are not ‘new cities’ built from scratch on some piece of land far flung from the actual city.

The key to this process is that specially targeted areas become intense concentrations of public and private investment. It is virtually impossible for this process to happen throughout the city though. The spatial expanse of the city is too broad for the municipality to ensure high quality urban amenities for every area of the city. The more a city grows outwards the less high quality parks, libraries, streets, paving, lighting, trees, public transport and cycling infrastructure the municipality will be able to provide and maintain. Focusing on a few targeted areas in the city and clustering urban amenities while at the same time creating the opportunity for more people to live in these areas will create more walkable and intimate cities. To achieve this the design of our streets and buildings has a big role to play.

The redevelopment of smaller land parcels also provides opportunities for smaller scale developers and small and medium businesses to enter the market currently dominated by large players. Think of a typical, shop-lined high street. There is always a far greater mix of well-known chain stores with local traders than in a mall. I wonder if this model presents a greater opportunity for local economies to grow in a society that so desperately needs to confront inequality head-on.

You might be asking, where is the ‘show house’ and grand opening for this Corridors of Freedom project? Good question! There isn’t one yet, despite the city’s many announcements about the Corridors project.

It seems like that moment when the famous celebrity lead actor has overpowered the director and is running away with the script. The audience seems to be enjoying it so the director lets it run, all the while compromising the integrity and original vision of the production. However, city planners — those responsible for directing growth in cities — are waking up to this reality by thinking seriously about how to mould a better future. The big question is whether it is too late?

The challenge of creating better cities is really a collective one. It’s time we start demanding a different script for our cities and our lives. But it seems we are too caught up with the excitement of a host of brand new ‘cities’ promised to hit the market like a cake, baked fresh out the oven, and the pursuit of exploring this year’s new line of malls that promise to offer so much more than their predecessors and yet always manage to feel just the same. Ultimately, these malls just get us to prop up Spanish, American or British retail giants and dupe us into being tenants by renting space to store our cars.

The harsh truth is that our ever growing capsule based existence threatens the fundamental sense of community and social vibrancy that provides hope on the very continent that our latest mall supposedly embodies. Let us all hope that African cities’ futures are filled with more authenticity.

Geoff Bickford is an urban transport specialist working for a research organisation focusing on the growth and development of South Africa’s largest urban municipalities.

Photo: Cradlestone Mall, Johannesburg, South Africa via South African Tourism.

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