What exactly is a "lifestyle centre"? And is it just a dressed-up shopping mall?

Image: Santana Row.

Located in the heart of Silicon Valley, San Jose’s Santana Row covers 42 acres. Its dense, high-end retailing, residences, restaurants and offices create a city-within-a-city. The architecture – with urban row houses finished with earth tones and pastel stucco – overtly evokes Old Europe, and developers brought in antique metalwork, pottery and stone fountains to further instill a sense of history (one store even imported the façade of a nineteenth-century building from France).

Meet the shopping mall’s hipper, New Urbanist cousin: the “lifestyle centre.”

The form is becoming more and more popular among developers and shoppers. But while lifestyle centres are promoted as a 21st century, community-oriented alternative to the soulless shopping mall, their purported Main Street “authenticity” is perhaps a new style of retail façade.

A mall or not?

Lifestyle centres are defined by the International Council of Shopping Centres (ICSC) as a “specialized centre” that has “upscale national-chain specialty stores with dining and entertainment in an outdoor setting”. The ICSC further describes them as a

multi-purpose leisure-time destination, including restaurants, entertainment, and design ambiance and amenities such as fountains and street furniture that are conducive to casual browsing.

It’s a description that sounds an awfully lot like a mall. But there are noticeable differences. Whereas a mall is traditionally anchored by department stores (Macy’s, Lord & Taylor, Sears), lifestyle centres are anchored by large specialty stores (Pottery Barn, Crate & Barrel, Williams-Sonoma) or movie theatres. While a regional mall averages 800,000 square feet in retail space, a lifestyle centre is smaller – around 320,000 square feet.

The centres have been popping up in affluent suburbs across the country for the last 15 years, and they are often mixed-use developments, bringing apartments, condos, restaurants, movie theatres, grocery stores – even hotels – to the mall’s historically singular retail focus.

The ICSC estimates that 412 lifestyle centres are open in the United States today (which only comprises a little under 2 per cent of the total number of shopping centres). Meanwhile, some malls – like the Biltmore Square Mall in Asheville, NC – have even taken the radical step of ripping off their roofs to “de-mall.”

Attention to detail

Michael Beyard of the Urban Land Institute (ULI) sees the design of lifestyle centres as a shift from “‘wow’ architecture” to the “architecture of comfort.” According to Beyard, developers are trading the mall’s soaring atrium or the Mall of America’s roller-coasters for the lifestyle centre’s attention to detail: cobblestone sidewalks, cast-iron lighting, or Art Deco-inspired neon signs.

The traditional, indoor shopping mall is known for its soaring atrium and sprawling floor plan. Image: kishjar? via Flickr.

At Market Common Clarendon in Arlington, Virginia – completed in 2001 – the developers spent more on details like signage, pavement, facades, plantings, fountains and sidewalks. However, the price-tag for the extras was made up for elsewhere: the developers saved significant resources by not having to build a mall’s roof.

The architecture at lifestyle centres is purposefully “eclectic,” so as to feel “legitimate,” explains Robert Koup of Jacobs engineering. He says that developers either ask an architect to respond to a certain period of architecture or they use multiple architects on one project. For instance, BAR architects of San Francisco, who worked on two blocks of Santana Row, described their “arcaded loft and retail buildings…modeled on turn-of-the-century industrial structures” – all designed to “recall historic shopping venues.”

By incorporating elements from history into retail projects, “lifestyle centres are designed specifically to make it look like it all evolved over time,” Koup continues.

The mix of buildings also provides a solution to another criticism about malls: their homogeneity in both form and retailing. It’s an eclectic antidote to complaints about the sterility and sameness of chain stores. Indeed, as the lifestyle centres are dominated by chain stores (like their mall brethren before them) the quirky styles of the stores make them seem more unique, local, and un-chain-like.

Lifestyle centres seek to recreate the retail experience of yesteryear’s Main Street. Pictured are the Shops at Arbor Lakes, in Maple Grove, Minnesota. Image: Mgwiki via Wikimedia Commons.

It’s one of the lifestyle centres great conceits: it wants to look like a town’s perfectly preserved, picturesque Main Street from yesteryear, but it’s all being created from scratch. Of course, some might see an irony in manufactured authenticity.

Victor Gruen’s vision fulfilled?

In many respects, lifestyle centres seek to fulfill the ambitious ideas of 1950s shopping mall pioneer Victor Gruen. Gruen, a Jewish architect from Vienna who emigrated to Beverly Hills, promised that the shopping mall would bring urbanity to the “phony respectability and genuine boredom” of postwar suburbia.

In the shopping centre, Gruen saw a means to bring what he termed “community” to soulless suburbs. It would be a place where people could gather, stroll and socialize, and his ideal mall would include community theaters, libraries, daycare, bomb shelters (it was the Cold War, after all), jazz concerts and art shows. “By affording opportunities for social life and recreation in a protected pedestrian environment, by incorporating civic and educational facilities,” Gruen argued in his 1960 book Shopping Towns USA, “shopping centres can fill an existing void.”

Victor Gruen’s community-oriented vision for shopping centres wasn’t entirely fulfilled. American Heritage Centre, Wyoming.

While it’s difficult to imagine now, when suburban shopping malls first opened in the 1950s, contemporary observers compared them to the best-known retail experience of their time: downtown. In Gruen’s first mall – the Southdale Centre, completed in 1956 in the suburbs of Minneapolis – most thought Gruen had succeeded in bringing downtown to the suburbs. Southdale was “more like downtown than downtown itself,” claimed the Architectural Record.

The main appeals of the mall were its commercial density, pedestrian spaces, cafes and artwork (faux as they may seem now), which suggested an aura of urbanity for new suburbanites who had just left the city.

With his Southdale Centre, Gruen liked to brag that he had re-created “the ancient Greek Agora, the Medieval Market Place and our own Town Squares.” But while Gruen had imagined Southdale as a mixed-use complex of offices, medical facilities and apartment buildings, retail became the predominant focus of the suburban mall. Many of Gruen’s less-profitable schemes ended up on the cutting room floor.

Sitting in the middle of a sea of parking, Southdale largely isolated itself from the surrounding community, creating a giant island of retail. Even Gruen acknowledged that all the “trees and flowers, music, fountains, sculpture and murals” were all designed with an eye towards increasing profits.

Or as he wrote, “the environment should be so attractive that customers will enjoy shopping trips…This will result in cash registers ringing more often and recording higher sales.”

A 1956 photograph of shopping mall pioneer Victor Gruen’s Southdale Mall. Image: Life Magazine.

Nonetheless, Southdale was an immediate success: on its first day of business, 75,000 visitors stopped in to view the new phenomenon. The mall’s grand design proved that suburbanites could be enticed to stay within a climate-controlled, private space for hours upon hours of shopping, and a new model of American retailing was born.

A different flavour of the same thing

For decades, the interior-focused, blank-faced suburban malls – always surrounded by a sea of asphalt parking – would become characteristic of the postwar retail model. In the process, malls stole the market-share, tax dollars, jobs and pizazz of traditional downtown shopping districts.

But malls were eventually doomed by their own success: the formula became too easy to replicate, and the design became ubiquitous. With the same chain stores and cookie-cutter designs, malls came to symbolize both mind-numbing homogeneity and loss of community.

“Suddenly people realized this mall formula is everywhere and is getting boring,” says Beyard.

It’s also possible that the sheer size of many malls overwhelmed shoppers. For instance, the 2.4 million square foot King of Prussia Mall in Pennsylvania includes over 400 stores; it’s anchored by Nordstrom, Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, Neiman Marcus, Lord & Taylor, JC Penney and Dick’s Sporting Goods.

Lifestyle centres propose to remedy that mind-numbing situation. However, Cooper Carry architect David Kitchens is skeptical of their longevity.

“They are a better, fresher mousetrap that will work for awhile and then go away,” he says.

Rather than making real connections with the surrounding community, he thinks that many of them – especially the ones devoted solely to retailing – are “designed to be a category killer that will suck the lifeblood out of everything else.”

Yet the shift from large malls to smaller lifestyle centres is part of a larger story, Kitchens insists. He sees lifestyle centres as tapping into Americans’ “emotional desire to rebuild their community.”

“As development gets larger and larger,” he continues, “people now want to decentralize and build personal feeling back into their lives.”

Parading themselves as Main Streets from a bygone era, these new retail centres hope to recreate what was lost in the rush to cover America with large malls from the 1950s through the 1990s. Yet at their core, Gruen’s ideal mall and the New Urbanists' lifestyle centres share the same aspiration: a thriving community centre, yes – but one that ultimately turns a tidy profit.

And whether we like it or not, suburban Americans have been building community on a foundation of commercialism for the last sixty years.

 

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Jeff Hardwick is a Senior Program Officer in the Division of Public Programs at the National Endowment for Humanities.

 
 
 
 

To see how a city embraces remote work, look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”

Katie Bishop is a freelance writer based in Oxford.