Many people are horrified by the out-of-town emporiums that are replacing high street shops. But Paul Barker argues that this is snobbery: malls such as Lakeside Thurrock (pictured) are palaces of wonder, natural successors to the Victorian arcades
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The Independent Culture
CITIES ARE being turned inside out. "Edge City" has arrived. Around the urban periphery, the retail parks and the shopping malls continue to spring up. A vast new mall at Trafford, on the edge of Manchester, opened last month, before the old city centre has even had time to repair itself fully after the IRA bomb. In London, the Oxford Street Association wonders whether it should roof the street over and employ private security men, to fend off the competition from malls such as Lakeside Thurrock, in the inner armpit of Essex, or Bluewater, which will open next year in a disused cement quarry in north Kent. Market towns see their old functions sucked out, like the juice from an orange. Campaigners fear for the future of our green and pleasant land.

But before we rush to praise or blame, we must try to understand exactly what is happening. In the late 20th century, it is as important for us to understand Edge City phenomena like the Trafford mall as it was for Friedrich Engels, in the early 19th century, to understand Manchester as the capital of cotton. We are talking about a new use of space. Given the importance of the car in all this, we are also talking about a new psychology of time. Greater understanding will perhaps lead to less bossiness. Unfortunately, planners - both professional and amateur - are very quick to fall into this way of talking and acting. It is best to remember that other people have preferences of their own, and usually for good reason. These should be respected.

Let me take a parochial example. In a row about tea-time and breakfast- time traffic congestion, I recently saw a letter in a local newspaper from the borough councillor who chaired a transport committee. In trying to overcome this, he announced. "We will not totally succeed until we can reduce the selfishness [my emphasis] of those who drive their children to school." This is the kind of bossiness I mean. No doubt, in an ideal world, many mothers would prefer to use their time differently. No doubt, too, many mothers might ideally prefer to shop the way people did in the 1950s. But we have to value our time according to the way things are. Many mothers judge that more time is best used taking their children safely to school, however wearisome the drive. This leaves less time for shopping. The supermarket (for food) or the mall (for just about everything else) beckons. If the malls were a superfluous invention, they would have gone the way of the pogostick and the hula hoop. Instead, they are with us, not for ever, but for many decades at least.

It is extraordinary to observe how the social geography of cities, across the industrialised world, falls into similar patterns - though at greater or less speed - in spite of widely divergent histories, politics and planning systems. Deep shifts of economics and behaviour are very hard to stop. The malls are the emblem of just such a shift.

Dikes and ditches can be built, of course, to direct the stream of urban change one way or another. But the stream carries on. London has been surrounded by the Great Dike of the metropolitan Green Belt. The economic and demographic pressure from London did not vanish. It re-emerged across the Green Belt, in a ring of small towns and formerly independent cities. These became exurbs: suburbs divided from the core city by a veil of countryside or semi-countryside. In the past 30 years Oxford, for example, has become an exurb of London. Structurally, Oxford is to late 20th-century London what Hampstead was to mid-century London. The Oxford intelligentsia catch the shuttle bus in to central London, just as their Hampstead predecessors took the Northern Line Tube. Half-way between London and Oxford, on the edge of High Wycombe, the motorway through the Chilterns is now lined with out-of-town stores pretending to be brick-built barns.

Many British observers of what is happening in and around cities - and especially in and around London - panic as they look at these dark, Satanic malls. (Meanwhile, the cotton mills of Lancashire - which may or may not be what William Blake originally had in mind - are now the subject of preservation orders.) But cities are, of their nature, ever-changing. Or, if they are not, they are dead. Cities are anarchic. The living city is forever in crisis. That is one way you can tell that it is alive. Those who find this appalling (and attractive) vigour unacceptable would like to stop change in its tracks. Human nature being what it is, they would also often like to stop it at the point where they themselves benefit most. When they look at the retail-driven growth of Edge City - all those car parks, those glittering domes - they throw up their hands. The totemic curse-words, "suburbia" and (deeper horror) "suburbanites", are uttered.

It is an attitude with a long tradition. Sitting in his house in Clerkenwell, George Cruikshank was horrified by the swift, spec-built creation of the new suburb of Islington (so handy for the City of London along the world's first ever bypass, the New Road). He drew his celebrated cartoon, "The March of Bricks and Mortar", which has been used in every anti-suburbia campaign from that day to this. Yet suburbia gives most of the people what they want from a house, most of the time. Market research shows that four-fifths of the English would like to live in the countryside. They would probably like a cottage in an open landscape with a clear view of the sea. But there aren't enough land or sea or cottages to go around. People can, instead, live in a form of semi-countryside. The modern suburb was an English invention. An English architect, CFA Voysey, eventually gave it an architectural form, the semi-detached house. This has been amazingly successful. Not too far away from most semis, there is now a retail park or a mall.

Strange liaisons are entered into by those who are hostile to suburbs in general, and Edge City in particular. The leftish Guardian is their citadel. It becomes the task of the rightish Daily Telegraph to note that, in the words of the headline on one commentary in early 1998, "Green belts suit the rich". (Certainly they keep the price of property up.) In all this, the great English vice of snobbery plays a big part. The attacks on the shamelessly populist design of the shopping malls follow in the footsteps of the earlier onslaughts on 1920s suburban semis or 1930s super- cinemas, on 1950s TV aerials or 1980s satellite dishes. The motto often seems to be: Find out what those people are doing, and tell them to stop it. Yet, a generation later, nostalgia always sets in, and what was despised becomes "heritage". You dare not today pull down an Art Deco Odeon, though you may well decide to convert it from its grey half-life as a bingo hall into a JD Wetherspoon real-ale pub. (Or, to put it another way from working- class to middle-class.)

London is, and has always been, a city of suburbs. It is as multi-centred as Los Angeles. The point was made, once and for all, in the greatest book about London, Steen Eiler Rasmussen's London: the Unique City. London cannot be crammed into the pint-pot of some ideal vision of Florence or Barcelona or Paris. And, in fact, in an un-ideal world, France was the first European country to surround most of its towns with American-style "strips", offering everything from cheap furniture to cut-price petrol.

Why do the new malls arouse such anger? Why do they produce the fierce desire to force people, somehow, back into the kind of shopping they have abandoned?

We ought, by now, to know that the worst mistakes in planning come from trying to force other people to live the way they wouldn't choose to, and often the way we wouldn't want to live ourselves. If you want evidence, make sure you go along next time the London borough of Hackney decides to blow up one of its tower blocks. No one has a "right" to build a house in the middle of Rutland, and drive to a Leicestershire retail park for all their goods. But, equally, no one has a "right" to tell them that they should be happy to live with their parents, and do all their shopping at Mr Patel's general store round the corner, just to ease the pressure on rural land, and make life more pleasant for those who are already there.

This is not, at bottom, an argument about town versus country. Hardly anyone in the countryside has any functional economic link with the land any more. Villages are dormitories at best; collections of second homes at worst. (Sometimes they also include tele- cottages. But the prevalence and importance of long-distance work has been fashionably exaggerated.) The argument is between haves and have- nots. The shopping mall becomes the focus.

Perhaps the trouble is that the malls are stupendously popular. They are as popular as Gaumont, Regal or Odeon cinemas were in the 1930s and 1940s, when the main feature film changed three times a week. All malls now contain the kind of cinema, the multiplex, which has turned round the once inexorable decline in cinema attendances. The first multiplex in Britain opened in Milton Keynes. Both Milton Keynes and multiplexes are mocked for their suburbanism. (The first general manager of Milton Keynes described it, rightly, as "a cut-price Arcadia".) But the suburbs are now often the main source of social innovation. Without suburban hen- parties, enjoying the friendly foyers and car parking of multiplexes, The Full Monty would never have become the most profitable British film ever made. Everywhere in late 20th-century Britain, the dominant architectural image is suburban. Even in the grandest schemes of urban renewal - for example, London Docklands - most of the housing is suburban in style, and the main place to shop is a new Asda or Safeway superstore. When the architectural history of late 20th-century Britain is written, Sir Lawne Barratt will demand as much space as Sir Norman Foster. Malls soon start to become the core of new suburban and exurban settlements. Drive out of Lakeside Thurrock eastwards, and you are very soon in the "new community" of Chaffont Hundred, where you can choose a house from among Wimpey Tudor, Bovis Vernacular and Barratt Conventional.

All this is as Joel Garreau predicts in Edge City: Life On The New Frontier, his pioneering study of the impact of the American mall on city form. In the United States, he observes, the mall attracts not only housing but also offices. The centre of urban power moves further and further from the city centre. The suburbs are where the people are, and the money is. The mall is a magnet for development in the same way that cotton mills or docks once were. In Britain, Gateshead's MetroCentre, Sheffield's Meadowhall and the rest, with their hundreds of thousands of square feet of retail space, were a landmark in the onward march of Edge City. By the time government decided that there should be no more - at least for the time being - change was already irrevocable. Three of the largest malls, Kent's Bluewater, Manchester's Trafford and Bristol's Cribbs Causeway, went ahead after the prohibition. Edge City flourishes, like a red-flowering horse chestnut or a leylandii cypress, whereas many town centres show every sign of being afflicted by an urban version of Dutch elm disease. Britain's first air- conditioned shopping mall opened in north London, at Brent Cross, in the 1970s. (The first in the world had opened in Milwaukee in 1956, one year after the first McDonald's.) But the new malls are of a different order of size. Drive past Sheffield's Meadowhall along the M1, and look down on its green dome in the old wasteland of the lower Don Valley. To the 1.2 million square feet of shops in Meadowhall itself, you must add the multi-acre retail park, and the new office parks. This is the Edge City of the home town of The Full Monty. Warner built here an 11-screen multiplex. And where did Sheffield decide to put its first super-tram line? From the old city centre to Meadowhall.

The first of the new malls was the Gateshead MetroCentre, which opened in 1986. A power-station ash dump was wasteland until the local developer, Sir John Hall, saw the benefits of its Enterprise-Zone tax breaks, and built his mall. And Meadowhall? The mall's brochures tell you that this stretch of South Yorkshire was written up by Sir Walter Scott in the first paragraph of Ivanhoe. More to the point, the lower Don Valley was the home of the gigantic Hadfield's steel firm. That era of industrial history ended in blood and tears in the first great union battle of the Thatcher years. In 1980, during the British Steel Corporation strike, mass picketing outside Hadfield's East Hecla works led to scores of arrests. Three years later, the last Hadfield's works closed, and the land became derelict. A parable of our time.

A special retail index gave the national trading ratings for the main concentrations of shops. The top four, judged by turnover and profitability per square foot, were MetroCentre, Meadowhall and West Midlands' Merry Hill, in that order. Oxford Street was down at number 11, and Princes Street, Edinburgh, at number 12. In 1993, when he was Secretary of State for the Environment, John Gummer produced his ordinance ("Planning Policy Guidance Six"), which embodied a strong presumption against giving planning permission for any more. But even this decree states that "It is not the role of the planning system to restrict competition, preserve existing commercial interests or to prevent innovation." You have to remember the crumminess of much of what the new malls have supposedly destroyed. If your alternative were to shop in Sunderland's depressing high street or in the squalid precinct at Peterlee New Town, you too would go to MetroCentre. Further south, I recommend an afternoon in Dagenham. Four square miles of uninterrupted council housing were built at Dagenham by the London County Council in the 1920s and 1930s - the biggest public housing estate in the world - with hardly a shop or a pub. Someone eventually got round to building an off-centre town centre for Dagenham. They called it Lakeside Thurrock. No one who can get away for the afternoon shops in Dagenham. All you can find there are pawnbrokers, Butlins booking agencies and charity shops selling second-hand wedding dresses. Lakeside undoubtedly gave some Dagenham shops the kiss of death. But what grade of shops were they? If a town centre is good enough, it does not succumb. The shopping heart of Newcastle-upon-Tyne beats vigorously, in spite of MetroCentre.

One difference from the United States is that in Britain the new malls have generally been built on derelict or low-grade land, rather than on green fields. In America, Joel Garreau says, "We created vast new urban job centres in places that only 30 years before had been residential suburbs or even corn stubble." In the orbit of London, you could argue that a town like Newbury - sprouting offices, shops and houses in Berkshire, far beyond the metropolitan Green Belt - is closest to an American Edge City. The new Newbury was based not on a shopping mall like Lakeside, but on a winning combination of defence contracts and pony paddocks. Garreau says that Edge City developers in America go weak at the knees when they see horses anywhere near a potential site. One of the laws he promulgates is that, after all the market research into the re-location of a company headquarters has been done, the essential outcome is that "the commute of the chief executive officer always becomes shorter", and there should ideally be horses for his family to play on.

The new malls and their ambient Edge City are, as Garreau says, "atria reaching for the sun". The modern atrium, the developer's art form of choice, was invented by the American architect John Portman for the first Hyatt Regency hotel. With their glittering office blocks and air-conditioned malls, American Edge Cities "are still works in progress", Garreau writes. We may all have thought about the future city, he muses, and "hoped it might look like Paris in the 1920s", but here is the future as it really is, "wild, raw and alien". Edge City may be a prime example of what Tom Wolfe called "the hog-stomping Baroque exuberance of American civilisation", but there is an underlying simplicity to the motivation. Edge City "moves everything closer to the homes of the middle-class". It may seem chaotic to the eye of the observer, but this is true of all new city forms.

Edge City is created by the car, the computer and the fax machine as surely as New York or Liverpool were created by ocean-going ships, and Chicago or Manchester by the railway. Many of the ill- effects blamed on the new malls are due to broader social and economic changes. "Watch the little filling station," Frank Lloyd Wright said. "It is the agent of decentralisation." Every village now proves the truth of this. More and more often, the local petrol station has become the village shop. It is open all hours. It sells milk, newspapers and lottery tickets.

A campaign group, Action for Market Towns, was set up to combat the decline of many country towns. (It is a decline in urban energy, not necessarily in population. Small towns are now the most popular place to live.) The group notes that "market towns are subject to a multiplicity of pressures", and not just "the growth of out-of-town shopping". It points out that "economic pressures are causing the closure of livestock markets, and other traditional sources of employment, such as dairies, breweries and manufacturing businesses". In fact, many of the new ex-urban inhabitants of old market towns would now jib at being downwind from a brewery, a cattle market or a factory.

It is wrong to see malls as mere parodies of traditional cities. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities - the book that launched a thousand Civic Trusts - Jane Jacobs said, "The bedrock attribute of a successful city is that a person must feel personally safe and secure on the street among all these strangers." Historically, the city with its wall was invented because life was safer here than outside. Enclosed and video-scrutinised, the new malls make people, especially women, fell safer. Shoppers and browsers walk down the arcades of Lakeside or MetroCentre with happy smiles on their faces. They have dressed up to come. There are no panhandlers, no alkies, no sad folk peeing in the street. Women don't need to carry their shoulder bags slung across their chest for fear of snatchers. American malls started the fashion for glass-sided crawler lifts, not because of the view out but because of the view in. Rape is unlikely in a glass elevator. The mall's success, in America, and now in Britain, is inseparable from the upsurge in women going to work and the arrival of the family's second car. It has become ever harder to manage life without a car to dash to and from school, job and the one-stop shop mall.

The malls are not, as their critics allege, all the same. At Lakeside, about 93 per cent of the visitors come by car. But at MetroCentre and Merry Hill, about 20 per cent come by public transport. Marks & Spencer, which knows its business, refused to come to MetroCentre unless there was a bus station. Go to Lakeside, as I have done, and you will find it has an unmistakably East London, even East End, feel. (This is why the BBC chose it for its recent docu-soap, Lakesiders.) In the Rendezvous restaurant, on the top floor, women break off from lunch to touch up their mulberry lipstick. The Delice de France cafe francais has pain au chocolat, but also Cornish pasties and sausage rolls. English Fayre sells pizzas, pasta and garlic bread. At Crofters, "traditional fare" means shepherd's pie, and egg or beans on toast. At Wok's to Eat, you can have curry sauce with anything. "Have a nice face," says a cosmetics ad, stuck on one glass door. A menswear shop called Envy advertises its goods at "50 per cent off". Even a deadly sin costs you less at Lakeside.

Campaigners weep for dying high-street shops. But there are simply too many of them for the present-day demand. They should be allowed to close, and revert to other uses, including housing. Nothing is more depressing than a row of charity shops interspersed with estate agents' "To Let" signs.

Streets lined with shops selling everyday necessities were a 19th-century invention. As working men and clerks grew more prosperous, the front gardens of terrace houses were converted into shops. New national retail chains emerged, such as the Home & Colonial Stores (the profits from the groceries went into building Lutyens's Castle Drogo in Devon) or Dewhurst the Butchers (the profits from the New Zealand lamb and Argentine beef went into building the central tower of Liverpool's Anglican cathedral). One of these chains was J Sainsbury, originally of Drury Lane, but soon of almost every high street in the south-east of England. Unlike many others, Sainsbury's is still with us. The firm adapted. Before the mid-l9th century, shops were only there for specialist services for the well-to-do: hatters, milliners, tailors, wine merchants, booksellers. Everyday goods were bought at markets. Against all predictions, the love of markets has outlived the love of high-street shops. Now you go to market again. At one end of the scale, there is the car-boot sale, which is many people's favourite Sunday morning pastime. At the other end, there is the mall, which is only an elaborate indoor market, in direct line of descent from the Victorian arcade.

The mall's other parent is the fun-fair. Malls remind me of the old Fun House at Blackpool Pleasure Beach. When I came in from the bus station at MetroCentre, I reached "Metroland". You buy a day ticket for your children. A friendly dragon floats above the entrance. A rollercoaster whooshes overhead. A ferris wheel turns. The toy-train ride clangs its bell without ceasing. The din is very satisfactory.

Architects' drawings of their urban projects always show little sketches of happy citizens chatting over a glass of wine at a cafe table under a bright umbrella. This is, they feel, the good life. It reminds them of outings to Urbino or Arezzo. In drizzly reality, you seldom see this in Britain. But I saw it at MetroCentre. In the upper-floor "Mediterranean Village", you have a choice of restaurants around the village fountain: Greek, Spanish, Italian. In the courtyard of Romano's, the customers share a bottle before lunch is served. Gossip flows. Napkins are unfolded. Umbrellas complete the paradisal picture. The only illumination, however, comes from electric lights, far overhead, in the grey enclosed roof. The sun never shines on Romano's - but then it never rains, either.

The English landscape is an artificial construction, strewn with the dry-stone walling of parliamentary enclosure, the architectural follies of the aristocracy and the reservoirs of the city water boards. I await, with confidence, the first conservation-listed shopping mall.

This is an edited version of Paul Barker's chapter in 'Town and Country', an anthology to be published by Jonathan Cape this Thursday at pounds 17.99

Michael Bywater on malls, page 42