A couple of months ago I attended a seminar for planning-oriented geographers and the event has kept on circulating in my thoughts because of one comment in particular. During the discussion section, one of the speakers, Marketta Kyttä, was asked what in her opinion will most likely stand out as the most bizarre legacy of contemporary Finnish urban planning practice. Something which future generations will stare at wondering “what on earth were they thinking”. Her answer was our obsession with shopping centers and malls. Touché, I thought.
A clear-cut separation of commercial services from the rest of the city, typically in the form of a shopping mall, certainly is one distinct feature that has become a defining element in our city-making tradition during the modern era. And despite recent urban renaissance movements in the larger cities, there is little indication that we are anywhere near giving up this pattern of urban development. In my opinion much more attention should be targeted at this issue because mallification is very counterproductive if we truly want to create neighborhoods with an urban atmosphere.
When Finland chose the neighborhood unit as the principal model for organizing communities, we also quite fundamentally chose to turn away from the Western and Central European tradition of organizing our market place as shopping streets and districts. I just recently strolled in downtown Utrecht and could not but admire enviously its cozy liveliness and commercial streets. Quite a contrast to Helsinki’s newest shopping mall Kaari I went to check out last week.
The classic arguments against shopping malls are the privatization of the market place, the loss of independent neighborhood stores, and the obvious linkages to car-dependent urban planning ideals. With that being said, shopping centers and especially shopping malls on the other hand also offer much convenience for us Finns when looked from the climate point of view. Many would and do prefer to stroll from store to store indoors when the option is to do the same in freezing temperatures. Due to our climate it is utopia to call for the complete abandonment of indoor shopping areas, but I nevertheless feel that way too little attention has been made to the wider side effects our mall craze.
The thing is that our malls are not limited to suburban areas but they come in all shapes and sizes from the urban core to the very edge of the city. And we don’t stop there. In recent years we’ve increasingly started to make mall-like gas stations in the country side. Everyone who has ever driven in Finland has most likely stopped at an ABC gas station – and most likely also to do something completely different than fueling up.
At every scale it’s respectively difficult if not impossible to speak of creating urban neighborhoods or lively town centers. At least not with the residential densities we have in Finland. This is because the commercial centers suck all forms of “urban life” from the surrounding area under its roof with the gravity of a black hole. Let me highlight what I’m talking about.
One “good” example in Helsinki is the currently developed area of Kalasatama which lies on the Eastern fringe of the inner city. Here a former freight harbor is being transformed into “a lively district […] in the middle of an existing compact urban structure”. This means 5000 to 7000 housing units and 535 000m2 of office premises. And naturally, the fifth largest shopping mall in Finland (58 000m2).
While I have absolutely no objections to the general concept of extending the inner city to the brownfield site, I am highly concerned with what the mall is going to do for the “liveliness” of the neighborhood. As also a huge chunk of public services will be situated within the mall complex, there won’t be much commercial or public service potential to go around for the rest of the neighborhood.
The first already completed blocks of the area underline my worries: they are almost entirely residential. This translates as way too many blank walls and boring streetscapes. Why build spaces for shops and restaurants when there will be a monster mall next door anyways? This obviously makes sense. But at the same time, it definitely does not make urban, lively and exciting neighborhoods.
My message for urban planners, urban designers and mall designers all around Finland is (as well as in other countries struggling with similar issues): please unite. The professionals who design shopping malls demonstrably have enormous know-how in designing attractive walkable environments which subtly lead people into places, make them want to pop into stores and generally just linger around. This is something we haven’t really been able to create in our urban environments during recent decades.
In my imagination this encounter of trades just might lead to places like downtown Utrecht. It most definitely is worth a try. There’s nothing to lose.