Shopping centres are classified by the International Council of Shopping Centres based on a number of criteria; including the size of the centre and catchment it serves – with centres varying from ‘local’ to ‘regional’ and ‘super regional’. The term “Big Box” is defined as a large stand-alone store that specializes in a single line of products that sell in volume.
Shopping malls have been developed since the 1920s, corresponding to the rise of suburbia and therefore associated with suburban sprawl. With the rise of New Urbanism, many American cities are going back to traditional towns for inspiration in an attempt to remedy the most pressing problems associated with the suburban expansion.
The Melbourne 2030 strategy is essentially based on the principles of New Urbanism advocating more compact and sustainable development focused around existing activity centres and transport nodes. The Strategy identifies growth areas on the fringe of metropolitan Melbourne. Whittlesea, one of the nominated growth areas, has been witnessing significant growth. Three key shopping centres are being developed, all defined as ’regional’ centres, as outlined in the table below.
The three ‘regional’ centres are within 3-5km distance from each other. While the words sustainability and public transport are used in their promotion, the large car parking figures give an indication of how sustainable they are, and how few people would use public transport.
Typically, two of the centres are internally oriented, while the University Hill Centre is within a new mixed use precinct, accessed via a mega intersection off Plenty Road – where the tram stops and bus services are located. The precinct is designed as an exclusive development, buffered from the surrounding area by generous landscaped strips and big box retail effectively separating it from the focus of activity and life – Plenty Road and surrounding area. Epping Shopping Centre in High Street is an existing centre being refurbished as part of the Transit City program. With the millions of dollars injected into its refurbishment and expansion, one could expect to see some improvement in its relationship with the street and the railway station across, but none of this seems to be happening. On the contrary, Epping Centre is expanding at a massive scale towards the north and west, while High Street is struggling and fighting to reinvent itself, with new street shops and cafes within walking distance north of the Centre.
Resurgence of street malls
The resurgence of street malls and focus on street activity and life has seen many existing malls opening onto streets, in an attempt to create a pedestrian friendly and more inviting environment.
To claim that shopping centres have to be internally-oriented big boxes that detract from existing streets is non-sense, specially where sustainability is becoming the biggest challenge we face. High Street Epping is crying out for activity and life, and what we are doing in response is to expand the centre with vast areas of open air car parking, instead of reinventing the centre to better integrate with the street.
Many argue that small scale and the rise of social exclusion at the fringe, rather than suburban development, is the issue – because these developments are not well integrated in their surroundings. Perhaps this is the case and the problem is not in the ‘big box’, rather, the manner in which it is laid out, designed and integrated into its context.
Bigger picture missing
For me, what is missing from the current Growth Areas work is the bigger picture view, where instead of looking at each of these centres in isolation, we should be looking at the whole regional context to understand the impact of each centre on existing streets, precincts and neighbourhoods.
It is not sufficient to say that we have created the first five or six star energy rating suburb in Australia, or employed the best sustainable expert to define the blue print for new precinct master plans, when getting to these precincts is not possible or practical without a private car. To conclude, it is not too harsh to say that we seem to be missing the key point in this discussion. It is not we either convert to shopping malls or main streets; rather, it is why any of either is well suited to a specific context and how it could be designed to be integrated with the surrounding environment, were both the centre and street complement and mutually support each other to create more sustainable and liveable precincts, neighbourhoods and districts.
University Hill or Brand Junction Centre
- A total of 104 hectares, located on the east side of Plenty Rd opposite to the RMIT Bundoora Campus.
- A Specialised Activity Centre in Melbourne 2030.
- Will generate over 3,500 new jobs
- Components: 10.5 hectare retail precinct, 20 hectares business Park, and a mix of medium density and detached housing. .
- Basic community facilities and over 12 hectares open spaces foot and bike paths.
- A supermarket, a range of specialty stores and 1,000 free car parking spaces. See master plan below
Plenty Valley Westfield Shopping Centre
- A major regional activity centre.
- A mix of retail, office, leisure and residential uses, served by both road and public transport.
- Stage 2 will triple the size and planned with the South Morang railway station.
- A total of 48,900 square metres floor space, 22 speciality stores, and 2,230 car spaces.
Epping Regional Shopping Centre
- Epping is a Transit City in M2030
- An additional 26,800 square metres of retail, and 950 extra car spaces, to be added to the existing centre.
- The highlight is Aurora, a new suburb in Epping North – 660 hectare development to be a model for environmentally sustainable design.