The Shopping Mall
Urban Crossroads #12

                                  Interior of a shopping mall. (The Jordan Times)

                                  Interior of a shopping mall. (The Jordan Times)

The shopping mall is taking over Amman. Just visit Amman's newest mall during the afternoon or evening hours, and you would think that most of the city's population has decided to congregate there.

During the 1990s, it seemed that every grocery store in Amman announced itself as a "supermarket." Today, it seems that every group of shops with an internal passageway announces itself as a shopping mall. Clearly, malls are the "in thing" in the city.

The design of the shopping mall is a very involved field with sophisticated standards that have been finessed over decades of experience. The contemporary shopping mall is an American product that dates back approximately to the 1950s. Mall designs include various features that aim at attracting shoppers, getting them to move around the mall, and keeping them in it for as long as possible. For example, the layouts of malls emphasize open, uninterrupted visual vistas that allow shoppers to see a good part of the interior of the mall in a single view. Also, malls utilize special lights that provide a quality of lighting similar to daylight. This way, shoppers would not notice the sun setting down, which subconsciously signals to them that they should return home. In addition, many mall designers prefer two-story malls so that shoppers would cross the mall in one direction along one story, and cross it in the other direction along the other story, thus passing by all of the mall's shops. Malls also incorporate prominent spaces with special attractions. For example, an early mall dating back to the 1950s had a large space that contained an enormous cage filled with brightly-colored birds. (If you would like to know more about the history of the shopping mall, read Malcolm Gladwell's article, "Annals of Commerce: The Terrazzo Jungle," in the March 15, 2004 issue of The New Yorker magazine.)

In Amman, the shopping mall is a tremendous success, and is effectively competing with, and probably overtaking, the street front shop. This is the result of a number of factors. One of them is that the mall brings a wide variety of shops as well as other establishments such as restaurants, cafés, cinemas, and children's play areas all under one roof. It also protects shoppers from the elements since climatic conditions in the mall always can be controlled at the exact same comfortable conditions, rain or shine.

The shopping mall provides other advantages that reflect the inadequate state of affairs of our public spaces. Ironically, the mall is a pedestrian-friendly zone. True, you would need to navigate the sea of parking spaces surrounding malls in order to reach the inside of a mall, but once you make it there, you are in a spacious, pedestrian friendly-zone where you and your children may walk comfortably and safely without worrying about the lack of suitable sidewalks, about crossing streets with never-ending streams of traffic, or about reckless drivers.

The shopping mall is almost a fully public space. It is open to the public, but since it is privately owned, its management may restrict access to it if and when the need arises. Therefore, behavioral patterns such as loitering or harassing shoppers, which may go unheeded in a fully public space (a street, plaza, or park), would not be tolerated in a mall, and its security employees quickly would order those involved in such behavioral patterns to leave (although smokers are left completely free to indulge in their addiction in spite of the ubiquitous no-smoking signs in our malls). Consequently, the mall attracts people from the fully public realm to the more protected semi-public realm.

Amman can support a very vibrant street life. Our weather is very pleasant in terms of levels of humidity, temperature ranges, and number of sunny days. As long as there is a canopy to protect pedestrians from the sun or rain, one may walk rather comfortably in Amman during most times of the year. We therefore do not always need climatically controlled areas in which to carry out activities such as shopping, entertainment, or socializing, as is the case in extremely hot or cold climates. However, the streets and sidewalks of Amman (as mentioned in previous articles of this series) are not designed for the comfort or safety of pedestrians. Most sidewalks are unusable by pedestrians, and busy streets are almost impossible to cross. On a related note, female pedestrians often have to deal with annoying men in the streets who stare and sometimes even direct crude remarks at them. Clearly, the quality of our public spaces in terms of physical design and modes of behavior is open to improvement. The shopping mall in this context provides a more comfortable and hassle-free venue for shopping, socializing, and recreation than the commercial street.

In spite of its numerous advantages, the shopping mall is often an anti-urban building type. It usually consists of a large building mass that is located in the middle of a sea of parking spaces, and therefore provides no continuity with any urban fabric that might exist in its vicinity. It turns its back completely to the outside world and presents to it blank walls. Of course, there are successful urban malls (I referred to one in Beirut in a previous article) that emphasize placing parking facilities underneath the mall rather than around it, and that aim at fitting the mall rather sensitively within the preexisting patterns of structures and streets surrounding it. However, we yet have to see such malls in Amman.

Finally, it has been commented that malls often have relatively short life spans. When a new mall is built, it often sucks the life out of preexisting malls in its general area. Such a pattern seems to be taking place in Amman, although it remains too early to tell as to how extensive it is and how it will affect the areas of the city in which malls have been located.

Mohammad al-Asad

July 15, 2004