Richard Florida
by Richard Florida
Sun Jul 20th 2008 at 7:42am UTC

Doctor Doctor

“When malls become a meeting place, it’s a sign that a
city is sick.”

Enrique Peñalosa, urban theorist and former
mayor of Bogotá, via Tyler Brule.

4 Responses to “Doctor Doctor”

  1. carlos9900 Says:

    Very interesting and useful post. When we Europeans visit some American cities we always find shocking that in some of them there is not a place where to gather. By the way, I’m reading “Who’s your city” and I’m enjoying it. Thank you!

  2. Mike L. Says:

    Malls are the death-knell for local retailers, but brilliant as places to meet informally: heated, cooled, parking, coffee. Since the local mall opened, unplanned encounters with our friends have increased considerably.
    To what “sickness” does Enrique refer?

  3. Wil Says:

    Malls can anachronize downtown in smaller cities, but a good mall can be better than downtown in terms of convenience. I wonder what Enrique thinks of open air malls like the old “Country Club Plaza” in Kansas City, or “Santana Row” in San Jose?

  4. Thomas Bond Says:

    This sentiment is somewhat “whippy-jawwed.” The malling process is actually a sign of a healing city, not an ailing city. The reverse of what the quotation implies. Actually, the way it works is this way:

    1) The city begins to die as a meeting place, usually from the center going out. Newer pathways near the edges of development short-circuit the older center pathways. Viewed as a fuzz-ball of networked movements of its citizens, the newer citizens no longer have any reason to go “downtown”.

    2) If we trace the daily pathways of motion in this city, the center become lighter and the peripheral edges become darker, filled with overlapping pathway traces recording crisscrosses of the virtual meetings of its citizens. This process has been well understood by various observers for thousands of years. Only our myopic self-involvement makes the process seem to pertain to our time, or only to America.

    3) For a while in the history of cities, there was a period where daily motion of citizens diverged from the natural limitation of feet and walking to the enhanced locomotive capabilities of public transportation — namely trams, trains, and buses. This cheap and universally available alternative to the use of feet-and-legs-only transportation re-enabled the “darkening process” where many cities’ citizens could and did move through the center of the these locomotively enhanced urban environments again. Their city centers continued to be “meeting places”, even for the newer inhabitants, who actually lived toward the edges of the metro areas.

    4) With the advent of the car for personal transportation, newer citizens and those who had moved from city centers to newer areas in the suburban development neighborhoods found it not only inconvenient to travel back through downtown areas, but also in msny cases actually impossible due to the restrictions of parking, traffic jams on roadways, and competition for use of the very small center city streets that had not been designed to accomodate these very large personal transportation devices we call cars. Once more, as it did prior to the advent of public cheap mass-transportation, the city centers “died” or became very ill.

    5) In an effort to fix or heal this sickened inner city, thousands of modern urban city centers have build “malls” — crammed with attractive stores, movie houses, coffee shops, discos and so on. These new rebuilt city centers work to keep some of center-dwellers at home during more hours of the day, but fail to attract people from the outside edges, due to the very real restrictions on movement of these people into or through the city centers using their preferred means of transport, namely the personal automobile. Once again, even if they desired to go back into the center of the city more often, the lack of parking, street-space for their moving cars, and sufficient thruways leading into or outof the center-city malls — all prevent edge-living people from going to the centers often enough to revitalize the new mall developments.

    6) Nonetheless, even though stunted, the rebuilt center city malls are a sign of a healing city, not a sick city. And, as with all healing, there are scars that surround many of these malls, areas where blighted and unhealed neighborhoods have not adjusted nor can adjust to the new constructions. So, when we look at center city malls, we often see a thin edge of blighted destroyed and damaged homes-businesses-streets, before we get back out to the donut of new development.

    7) Even in the healthy donut itself, the “mall as meeting-place” process is also one of healing and healthy growth, not one of sickness. Since these new suburbs have never had meeting places, unlike the city centers they replaced, the emergence of artificial new mall meeting locations anew in these vital growing toroid metro regions are certainly a true sign of very healthy growth. This is certainly NOT a sign of sickness for the suburbs.

    8) The final questions is: Is the development of suburban malls and their emergence of meeting places to replace center city located organically-developed “downtowns” a sign that the city is ailing or sick?

    9) Answer: Not necessarily. It actually can be completely unrelated to whatever the health status is of the center city downtowns. But it IS certainly the process of the emergence of a mature, healthy toroidal shaped “city” all by itself.

    10) So, what DOES determine or indicate the health of a center city area or downtown?

    11) Answer: The common availability, and also the common use, of cheap mass transportation like buses, trains, trams and so on. If people can’t or won’t move through downtown areas during their day — for any reason — then the health of those areas will decline. This process of decline will continue until center metro downtowns actually die. You can see this all over the civilized world, but ONLY where there is no commonly available means of cheap public mass-transport.

    Finally, how can we health our city centers?

    Answer: Make new roads and pathways going through downtown with many stops. Make it connect to everywhere back out to the newer donut suburbs. Make it cheap. Run the buses or trains all day and night, like the streets run themselves 24/7.

    Don’t want to do this because it’s too costly? Then tear down the city centers and replace them with farms or public parks, patrolled by squads of police 24/7.

    And, now parenthically, understand that malls-as-meeting-places are not a sign of sick city, but a healing one.

    Further, one more thought: The observation that assesses mall meeting houses as a sign of urban malaise is itself a sign of sickness — of the observer who sees healing and calls it illness.