Will Malls Dominate in the 21st Century?

Between now and 2010, over 100 new shopping centers will spring up in India translating to 31,846,504-square feet of mall space being created, according to findings from a report titled ‘Mall Realities India 2010.’ True that this number has been toned down from the expected 800, but that isn’t stopping this country from developing prime real estate to service the rising middle and upper class with their disposable incomes. These landmarks so common in the North American landscape are fast appearing as symbols of modernity and prosperity for the world’s second most populous country.

With the number of malls having grown from one in 1999 to nearly 100 in five year’s time, India is sending a strong message that the country is developing quickly and so is the spending power of its people. But for a country where open-air markets, haggling with vendors, and buying from diverse suppliers has been the norm for centuries, is India setting itself on a path that mirrors the consumer culture of the U.S.? With the most amount of mall space of any country, at 20 square feet of real estate per person, the United States gives consumers the royal treatment–from giant parking lots to accommodate the cars of individual shoppers to the large amounts of energy used for air conditioning and lighting to provide a quality controlled indoor experience. But if anything, the “dead malls” of today–through store closures and vacancies–have taught us that excessive investment in retail infrastructure pays a price for its overconfidence in the belief that growth in consumer spending is limitless.

In the US, many consumers know nothing other than shopping at one-stop mega destinations, while small businesses and personalized customer-buyer relationships have become obsolete. Will these new retail meccas in India contribute to the loss of one shopping tradition in favor of another? More specifically, will malls accelerate the rise of consumerism among Indians? And is the amount of space for malls devoted to the smaller segment of the middle and upper class leaving out the spatial and wealth considerations for the rest of the populace that continue to live in cramped slums and rely on traditional markets?

If the second most populous nation is set on bringing modernity and convenience to its people, it could plan with foresight: powering the centers with renewable energy and creating mixed retail, office and public-oriented spaces to avoid the phenomenon of dead malls, while eliminating nonproductive space for parking by developing reliable public transit, such as a rail station at the mall. Given the pace at which it is building, India should be cautious during such economic times. With climate change, increasing competition over energy resources and shortages in social services yet to be addressed, retail development must be self-sustaining while not pushing out the traditional markets that are still being used by the majority of the population for their shopping needs.

Considering how unsustainable the US model is, India would be wise to carve its own path of development that effectively and efficiently addresses the needs of the 21st century: smart planning that brings high social, environmental and economic returns, energy efficiency, and proportionate allocation of space for consumption, production and conservation. It’s not so much a choice as it is an imperative in a rapidly developing country of about 1.2 billion people. 

Photo Courtesy of Nadir Hashmi

Photo Courtesy of Nadir Hashmi

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