Retail parks. I’ve had lots of moans about shopping malls – what they are and what they represent in cultural terms – but I don’t think I’ve ever taken a bullwhip to the ubiquitous retail park. OK.
The problem with retail parks is that they don’t function as human spaces because they’re not designed to function that way. They function only as soulless commercial machines which give us monotonously homogeneous retail units and as many parking bays as can be squeezed into the space that’s left. That’s about it, so what don’t they give us?
They don’t give us imaginatively styled buildings with some variation from one to another. They don’t give us quiet spaces where people can sit and take their ease between footslogging perambulations around Tesco, B&Q and Poundstretcher. They don’t give us pedestrian-friendly access – most of the walkways are laid out to facilitate movement within the park, not onto it. I’ve found that to get onto them by foot, it’s often necessary to cross busy main roads, step over barriers, and negotiate banks of ill-maintained shrubs that are the only inadequate nod to nature. Access is designed for motor vehicles, not walkers. The three I’m most familiar with don’t even have toilets, except one that happens to have a store big enough to provide them.
The result of all this is that I find them unpleasant places to visit, and only do so because the commercial world has consciously shifted the retail emphasis away from the High Street and effectively left me little option. Is that good enough? I don’t think so.
No doubt the planners and property developers would tell me that they have to work on very tight budgets because the cost to return equation has to maximise profit. Well, let’s ask two questions:
Are we to believe that there are no designers in this country up to the task of making retail parks more user-friendly within comparable budgets? I don’t believe that.
What is so wrong with building human experience into the equation anyway, just because it’s a good thing to do? That’s the big difference between now and how things used to be back in the days when entrepreneurs took some pride in the innate value of their structures, and saw it as their ethical duty to give something back to the community that had made them rich. We’re perfectly free to change back again if only we could generate the will so to do.
I hate to admit it, but religion used to provide the primary prod to condition such a mindset, and conventional religion is all but dead. Consumption is the new religion, and it obliterates humanity because there’s nothing humane about rampant consumption.
So I suppose what I’m coming down to with all this is that the retail park stands as testament to the fact that we need to become independent of the belief in gods and heavenly rewards – as we mostly have – but replace it with something other than self-serving pecuniary motivation. We need to recognise that the human animal is an important component of society just because it is. Then, maybe, profit could become the servant instead of the master.