While the media gaze has been on the Olympic site in the East End of London, the new Westfield shopping centre has quietly been rising from the dirt, and today, opens it’s doors to the public. While some have questioned whether a multi-million square-footed shopping megaplex will attract the custom it needs to survive in these ‘austere times’, others have quite rightly argued that it is offering some 10,000 jobs (although how permanent they’ll be is another matter). A quick look at the store list, and even without seeing a single picture or news reel from inside the glittering, shimmering steel and glass simulacra of consumerism you can conjure up an image of pretty much exactly what it’ll be like to walk around this cathedral to capitalism.
Having chain stores and international food outlets will no doubt draw in the crowds, at least at first. And undoubtedly, the rent will be such that only those kinds of stores can afford to be there. But will it be sustainable? And what about the local community it is serving? It is commendable that it has been built in an ‘inner-city’ area and not near a motorway, but how many economic links will it actually have with local businesses? Will there be spillover? Will it aid local shops and businesses that are already struggling or will it simply steal whatever existing customers they did have?
And here I think lies the issue. Too many of today’s meso-level planning sites – be they shopping centres, housing estates, MediaCities – are under the auspiciousness of a culture of profitability par excellence. The property companies in control of these areas, under pressure from share holders and marketeers are squeezing out every pound, shilling and pence out of each square inch they can so as to maximize profits in the short-term and beyond. This is in no way a bad thing per se, I’m not extolling a ‘capitalism is organised crime‘ ethos here, far from it. These companies have been instrumental in shaping the urban centres for decades, and have provided jobs, wealth, (some) taxes and a good quality of life for many people. And yes, some of them are even quite nice to be in… for short bursts… when there’s no one else there. But whether it’s because we’ve reached a tipping point (perhaps due to the fact that now the majority of the planet’s population is urbanised), or whether people are just starting to care a bit more about the increasing homogenisation of their cityscapes (like the clone town debate), these planning and real estate agents, like bankers, have become almost villainous because of their profit-maximizing processes.
However, there is a way out. And it involves that dirty word which no business will ever want to hear. Failure. Too often failure is defenestrated from the theories of growth as something to be avoided at all costs. Efficiency and effectiveness are key. But what if we ‘allowed’ spaces of failure? Or perhaps a better word is experimentation? Continuing with the example of the new Westfield shopping centre (but it could equally be leveled at MediaCityUK or a new office block, skyscraper or business park), why not forgo the profit on a certain percentage of the outlets inside the store? Leave them empty for pop-up exhibitions or stores on a temporary basis. Or perhaps reduce the rent to minuscule amounts and offer it to local retail business less than 2 years old. Or run a competition for the most innovative or creative or exciting locally-sourced product to be showcased – they could even make a big media circus out of it.
Having the international retail giants is important to keep it economically viable, but connecting the local business community is even more important to keep it socially engaging. Connecting the local to the global is vital. Which is why we need spaces of failure. Whether it’s a physical space (like a vacant plot), a political space (such as a local or national policy that requires ‘experimentation’) or even a social or virtual space (community groups regularly engaging with the planners for example) – allowing for failure will mean more success – for more people – in the long run.