When the average Calgarian couple are not at work and not at home, there is a good chance they are at the mall, wandering the carefully engineered streets of a micro-city of consumption. In today’s society, shopping has become an increasingly important pastime. If nothing else, the sheer amount of time that we spend within our city’s malls make it imperative that we consider the social and spatial impacts of this behaviour. How is this seemingly harmless activity shaping our city?
Perhaps first we should ask why we are drawn to malls at all. Most obviously, the popularity of the mall is driven by the materialism of Western society. Our identity is predicated to a large degree on the gadgets we own and the clothes we wear. Shopping has become integral to self-expression: our social identity is defined by what we buy as much as by what we do.
Nevertheless, our love affair with the mall runs deeper than the trifling pleasure of making shiny new purchases. If all we desired were material goods, our needs could be satisfied at the click of a button on Amazon or eBay. This point is further illustrated by the reality that one in four visitors to the mall will not actually buy anything. Clearly, we are getting something more out of our trips to the mall than new clothes.
Our desire for new things is accompanied by a certain contempt for the mass-consumption promoted by malls. The urge to buy is paralleled by recognition of the institution’s hollowness. Accordingly, the modern shopping centre mystifies the relationship between the commodity and the context. We are sold the idea that something more than shopping is taking place within the mall. Through the use of street signs, lamp posts, benches and trees, designers have perpetuated the metaphor of the mall as an urban street.
Visiting the mall on a Saturday afternoon functions as a social outing as much as it does an opportunity to make purchases. Walking through the Chinook parking lot, jammed with vehicles and brown slush, represents an important social event for couples young and old, bustling families and groups of teenagers with newly minted licenses. And it’s more than our city’s temperamental weather that keeps people in the mall. The clean and sterile environment and the glittering store fronts and food vendors promise endless possibilities of comfort. The mall is a safe and predictable environment to play out our social fantasies.
The mall as a public space that centres on social interactions is not an entirely bad concept. In an attempt to further increase the length of time we spend in the mall, designers have promoted the structure as a public space and by doing so have caused it to function as such — at least to some degree. Students with no money may come to the mall to hang out with their friends and seniors may populate the food court for hours in the morning over a single cup of coffee.
However, the homogeneity of the well-groomed middle-class crowd who occupy the mall cannot be ignored. The fact that undesirable individuals may be implicitly or explicitly barred from the premises, as they may create anxiety and impede profits, reminds us that the mall is still a carefully regulated private space. The collection of visitors in the mall may have enough diversity to make people-watching passably interesting but not enough to push people outside of their safe social circles and habits.
So whether or not we are impervious to the new spring collection or the mega red-tag sale in the mall, we must acknowledge that simply occupying the mall heavily constrains our behaviour. Though we may choose to treat this environment as a place of community, it is unavoidably bound up in capitalist interests.
Although I am not trying to suggest the mall is inherently evil, we must recognize the character of our cities is the product of many individual decisions. When we are at the mall we are not on the streets, in parks or clubs.
When, where and with whom we decide to spend our time defines our cities and ourselves.