A long time ago - last century - when I was young and needed to finish my town planning degree; I wrote a thesis on pedestrian malls in Sydney and although at the time - I thought it was a bit of an irrelevant and boring topic - I find that malls continue to create debate; headaches and possibilities - a utopian ideal for shared public space free of traffic and pollution - a place where everyone can be 'part of'.
In the late 1980s malls were a big thing - a blunt tool used by Council's to try and claw back the leakage from the old town centres to the new Westfields and Roselands. Usually people behind the mall movement were motivated to ensure that long term commercial cores did not become empty shells attracting people with no money to spend. There was also an element of idealism - to provide truly public spaces as opposed to quasi public spaces.
My thesis researched all the malls in the Sydney metro area and tried to identify the common characteristics of both successful mall and unsuccessful malls. In the early 1990s there were 24 pedestrian malls in Sydney.
The research found that successful malls required an anchor - a destination at one end of the mall that (in the best cases)required people to walk down the mall - there always needed to be a reason; a destination for people to walk through the mall - so for example Chatswood Mall - has the train station entrance located on the mall and Hornsby Mall had the entrance to Westfields on the Mall - same at LIverpool.
Malls that were unsuccessful were generally roads that had lost their centrality to the town or urban centre as a result of the growth of the shopping centre and the decline in the High Street dominance of retail trade. These streets were converted to malls in a desperate attempt to re-enliven declining retail strips and activate some public and civic life back into a town; such as Penrith's High Street Mall which has since been converted back to a road.
My findings were generally that planners and designers cant manufacture civic life and vibrancy - it organically grows around a practical use - a function of the city. Streets serve primarily as a functional space to carry vehicles; and the passing traffic provides good exposure to retail outlets on busy streets. When you close that street off from vehicles - you risk killing off all activity from that street; unless you provide a functional reason for people to walk - ie a pedestrian entrance to a place that is integral to the operation of the city - so for example - government offices, shopping centres; medical centres, public transport entrances, libraries. It has to be a necessity for people - not a choice - so boutique shops dont really cut it on their own on a mall.
Malls that are simply limping along can be helped by ensuring that zoning around the mall is for high intensity land uses (and limiting opportunities for high intensity uses elsewhere in the urban centre) ; they can also be helped by holding regular community events or markets in the space and by regularly updating the street furniture and providing good maintenance and landscaping. Many malls have in the past 3 decades partially or fully re-opened to vehicular traffic.
Public space is immensely important to cultural life; but its presence in our towns and cities is declining. My research showed that public space has to interface with active and high intensity land uses and not be isolated from the practical functions of the town centre. So the 'market' and 'society' rely on each other to make a city. My favourite mall is the Corso in Manly - what a fantastic place - and a 'desire line' reason to walk from the ferry to the beach with all those delicious ice cream shops and fish and chip shops along the way!
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