Beyond the Mall – New Urban Paradigm

It’s late in the afternoon. You’re walking in the mall with your teenagers and their friends. The mall is brand new and definitely top of the line, it’s well designed, maybe even best-in-class. And you’re listening to them complain about how boring it all is. And you’re thinking, this is trouble. It’s time for a major reassessment of the retail place and the retail brand. Designing for the next generation is going to involve re-thinking the paradigm. Time to start constructing a workable theory:

Generation 1 Built the Malls. They wanted clean, safe, convenient, predictable places selling standard brand retail. And they got it, millions of square feet of it. And these retail places got bigger and bigger…one level, then two, then three. And they spread internationally. This movement built the great malls of the ’60s through the ’90s. They built more than they could ever have imagined. And life was good. Until their kids grew up!

Generation 2 Changed the Malls. The Baby Boomers and Gen-X’ers built malls as lifestyle centers. They wanted good clean branded shopping in a slightly more authentic setting. Open air, kind of looking like real streets and blocks; with more real architecture and more real looking materials. But, it still had a parking lot close by; it was very safe and clean. It had consistent graphics; maybe a better food court, more food options. It had newer and better versions of the old branded retailers, but the place was also safe and pretty much the same program as the mall. And these were good! They started to steal sales from the older malls, which were forced to upgrade to compete. And the malls started to emulate the lifestyle center as best they could. And this seemed to work until the boomer’s kids grew up.

Generation 3 – the Millennials – Killed the Malls. The Millennials’ retail places are yet to be built in any great numbers. But luckily, there are some prototypes out there that are being user tested. And they are called cities. Well, actually, most US cities are not even at the testing stage. But a few urban places, some only one or two blocks long, are retail prototypes in the making, according to our millennial focus group – our children.

The successful Gen-3 places have definite characteristics in common. They are authentic, gritty, complex, have a distinctly un-branded look and feel (a few recognizable brands are okay). They are made up of a diverse mix of uses. They have an incredibly diverse customer base. These are places that allow very divergent social groups to hang-out; they are places where diverse urban tribes actually cross paths and can tolerate one another. There is culture and entertainment mixed in, including clubs, cafes, and art galleries with real artists. There are lots of tattoos; people want to live there and work there. This is the newly emerging urban brand.

Gen-3 places are about context, not projects. They are immersive environments. They actually have real histories. They are rooted in a real context, which means that they cannot be easily reproduced. Clearly, each is unique. There is a genus loci that goes well beyond conventional planning theory – think Abbot Kinney, Haight Street, the Pearl District.

Gen-3 places are not product types that get developed easily. This could make for a complicated roll-out. Most seem un-anchored. In fact, the place is an anchor in itself. Like other paradigm changes before, it seems that the previous generation also likes these urban places.

In reality, it has always been about place. It’s just that the paradigm of what actually makes a place a powerful social experience has changed. It is always changing! We are at the beginning of a big wave that is changing fundamentally what people want out of shopping and social environments.

A professor in business school once said about creating wealth – “you find a big wave, and ride it for all it’s worth.” We are beginning to think that this is the wave that we are going to be on for the rest of our careers and that there is going to be a big pay-off for those who ride it and get it right! We are definitely urbanizing. But creating cool, emotionally engaging urban places (which almost always means retail places), is something that we are continuously learning how to do.