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- By Andrew Barnes
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If you do not live close to Gauteng you might not have heard the brouhaha surrounding the opening of the new Mall of Africa. South Africa’s biggest shopping mall the media proclaimed … or is it the biggest in Africa? In a fit of Mall Envy, a Cape Town centre as well as Eastgate, claimed it was actually the largest. Who cares? This new mall encloses 130 000sqm of new shopping centre space filled with yet more Woolworths, Truworths, Dis-Chem and McDonald’s outlets. Luckily there are a few new marketable international stores too. The cherry on the top … we now have two Starbucks outlets in South Africa. One template begets another – from concrete mall, to shop layout to coffee. Yippee.
The Mall of Africa represents the evolution of 100 years of Modernism in urban design thinking. This paradigm leads to a template view of mankind and communities where structure, style and layout is transferable from one culture to another regardless of context. The operating mantra is that of urban efficiency wrapped up in massive concrete scale and ribboned with tar.
The prevailing modernist metaphor is that of the machine. Predictable, impersonal, functional, without personality. Yes, early Modernist thinking viewed society as a machine and they sought to maximise its efficiency. Modernism as a theory emerged at the end of the 19th century and was influenced by the industrialisation wave that swept Europe at that period. Early proponents of Modernism saw roads as the major functional arterial passages that propagated economic activity. Modernists set about driving nuisance value pedestrians off ever widening roads, adorned on either side by new templated featureless buildings. This is consistent with the spirit of pure function over nuanced form and characterful texture. The result is urban sprawl and the destruction of habitat – both natural and communal.
But something is amiss.
While we measure the value of investment funds in the Mall of Africa in terms of pension fund growth, we ignore the real costs. These real costs include the real people prevented from participating at the meagre peripheral of the economic landscape. A shopping centre is an extension of a “gated community” both in practice and insinuation. While I know you will cry out “but we have a high crime rate and shopping centres are safe”, to what extent can we follow exclusionary land use principles that may well contribute to the problem of inclusion, participation and powerlessness? Does exclusive land use ameliorate or exacerbate what we seek to avoid?
A community comprises many people. Many you might not even see. Where I live there are people that pick through the rubbish to extract anything of value. They live by agreement behind a petrol station. Sometimes I talk to them. They have families and are paid 85c for each kilogramme of scrap metal that they can recover. There are others that sell items at intersections, and still others that claim to clean up these places. Yet more try to sell goods door to door. These people, largely unseen, are participants at close quarters. They try, best as they can, to engage in the economic fabric of our communities. But shopping centres, as we know them, simply smother this vibrant component of real people and with it the problems we hope to avoid are magnified elsewhere.
New Urbanism is a response to, and a critique of Modernism. Human complexity and nuance informs its approach where urban design facilitates walkable, sustainable, mixed-use community environments. New Urbanism is an approach that builds inclusion and participation around the community. In so doing it creates natural buffers against crime and squalor.
There are many places in South Africa that reflect the spirit of New Urbanism. Many of these places are indeed quite old but the spirit is present. Can we build on this? Newer places such as Melrose Arch in Johannesburg have tried to capture the essence of New Urban thinking but have also failed to authentically reflect the local community.
And so we have the Mall of Africa and probably many more to come – milestones in our national pursuit of at least 1 square metre of shopping centre floor space for every citizen and an epoch in “placelessness”. Is this really the best we can do?
Partner at NOTED Thinking