The ‘democratisation of design’

Shopping centres of today are required to play a much bigger role than being ‘providers of stuff’, and the generic design typically applied for them must evolve to connect the community together, says Susanne Pini, HDR Principal and a leading Australian mixed use architect.

According to Pini, who is national director of Retail and Mixed-Use at HDR, “Obesity, loneliness and social isolation are all outcomes of the suburban life we created when we turned our suburbs into dormitories. We lost the ‘social glue’ as we stripped our suburbs of anywhere for the community to socialise. Our focus needs to be on creating places that are walkable and communal. The retail centres of tomorrow need to connect the community together and be an integral part of our ‘everyday’, part of our ‘ordinary’.”  

Observing that there are very few neighbourhood centres in Australia with the capacity to play the social infrastructure role expected of them, she notes that the generic design of existing neighbourhood shopping centres results in physical and cultural isolation. Calling for a radical shift in design thinking, she says that design that reflects its community will be the solution.

Traditional shopping centres, explains Pini, are providers of ‘stuff’ where people come, buy and leave. Their generic design typically doesn’t allow natural light inside so that shoppers lose track of time. Describing this design as the ‘Vegas’ model, she adds that it’s an architecture of ‘anywhere, anyplace, anyone’, which produces the effect of ‘nothing, nowhere for nobody’.

There was a time when facilities such as libraries, markets, community centres and local shops served to bind communities together. The local shopping centre today must grow and evolve to take on the role of the suburb’s town square, moving away from a model of isolation to a model of connection.

Pini identifies The Ponds Shopping Centre and Rouse Hill Town Centre in Sydney as examples of this new design paradigm. Ed.Square, a brand new mixed-use community in south western Sydney also features a town centre designed by HDR, which embraces new community design expectations.

She adds that good design is no longer the exclusive domain of the affluent; that it’s a community expectation today indicates the ‘democratisation of design’.

Rise of the super-neighbourhood shopping centre

Joanna Russell, General Manager – Retail Development, Frasers Property Australia, says that super-neighbourhood shopping centres have an opportunity to claim the position of the community’s natural heart and soul. Still an emerging segment, the super-neighbourhood shopping centre represents a new sub-sector in retail assets. Measuring between 10,000sqm and 25,000sqm in retail area, these centres have a target mix of anchor tenants and supporting speciality shops to reflect local community needs. These super-neighbourhood centres balance everyday convenience shopping needs with non-retail services, such as collaborative working spaces, lounge areas, education zones and childcare, as well as experiential offers, such as cinemas, play areas, yoga and meditation areas, and gardens.

Russell observes that these centres have the opportunity to create a sense of place where people really feel comfortable and want to spend time. The design thought process must, therefore, move beyond the census demographics or LGA statistics of the local community, and research the surroundings, history, culture and aspirations of the people that live there.

“Going beyond the site’s footprint, the super-neighbourhood centre should be a natural part of the townscape, designed from a whole-of-neighbourhood perspective, complementing the existing amenity, nestled within the natural street grid, and in symbiosis with the land and the people in its catchment.

“Achieve this balance, and you create a super-neighbourhood centre that the local community feels belongs to them. It becomes a source of pride. Visiting the centre becomes part of daily routines," says Russell.