Friday, 26 September 2008

The Mall Mentality

I came, I saw and I concurred - with most of what I and other bloggers had already written about Cabot Circus. It is indeed impressive in its scale and inspired in its design (but what do I know about architecture?*). I liked the way the middle street arrives at the circus at a higher level to the side streets, the way that the multiple levels give you so many different viewpoints and the way that it tries to blend in with the old Broadmead. It could easily have been worse.

Comments liking it to a Cathedral of Commerce were closer to the mark than I expected. In scale it is very cathedral like, and in the way that its aisles are lined with chapels to the various saints (saint starbucks, saint next, santa costa, saint yo sushi). Worshipers can make their votive offerings to their favoured saint, donating a few pounds here and there, very much in the Catholic tradition. Of course the major deities Jesus of Fraser and Harvey Virgin Mary take centre stage but most worshipers will feel that they have a more personal relationship with their own patron saint.

As I walked back home I was struck by how run down and neglected the older part of Broadmead now looked. And not just Broadmead but much of central Bristol now appeared tacky and uncared for by comparison. That worried me, because I've always felt that we should focus our efforts on making the public realm, particularly our main streets, more attractive as places to be, less dominated by traffic and better cared for. Yet the initial impact of Cabot Circus seems to be to make the public realm look even more squalid.

Cabot Circus is essentially a shopping mall, albeit with a more porous perimeter in the Broadmead direction. The essence of a mall is that within it you walk in a pleasant environment, weather free, traffic free, noise and pollution free, untroubled by undesirables like beggars and muggers. But outside the environment is actually degraded by the mall. Not only are vast areas and/or resources given over to car parking but the traffic generated by the mall dictates that the surrounding area must be dedicated to accommodating that traffic.

Contrast this with the traditional shopping street like Gloucester Road or Whiteladies Road. Such streets are multifunctional and messy but organic. They have grown without any significant planning as a result of thousands of individual actions. Small local businesses can flourish because within the unplanned complexity they can find a niche that suits their scale. There's no place for such small businesses in Cabot Circus and the future prospects of traditional shopping streets can hardly be improved by the arrival of the brash big brother down the road.

Cabot Circus, we are told, has created 4,000 "new" jobs. Does that include jobs with House of Fraser and others already based in Bristol who have merely moved eastwards? Even those jobs that are genuinely new to Bristol may well be at the expense of other jobs in existing businesses that fail or have to scale back as a result of the competition from Cabot Circus. Or are we all suddenly going to spend so much more money, in the teeth of a recession, that the 4,000 jobs really will be in addition to what already exists?

According to the Evening Post the "greatest threat to Bristol's new city centre appears to come from ... a small minority who appear to have a perverse desire to see Cabot Circus fail". Something of an overstatement I think, but they are clearly referring to bloggers such as me and the Bristol Blogger. In an emotional piece worthy of Churchill railing against the nazi bombers of 194o, the Post refers to our "doom-laden cynicism". Fair comment, but in the end we need a rational debate about the impact of Cabot Circus, not the Spanish Inquisition headed by Mike Norton.

(*answer - about as much as George Ferguson knows about planning for cyclists.)


elizabeth said...

While the Bristol cognoscenti were walking round Cabot Circus we were doing our shopping in St Nick's - and it struck us how very pleasant and safe is a traditional, small, stone built, and stone paved warren of real streets, for people to walk through and round, mostly free from motor traffic, and echoing with the gentle sound of their own footsteps and voices, rather than amplified music; people just going on foot and bike about their business, and picking up what they need for that day's provisions on the way. Here the shopping fits in with the rest of the goings-on in the old city centre: it is not its raison d'etre, as with the segregated concrete car-centred cathedral you describe. But perhaps the modern mall is only our version of the old bazaar, and its relative size and importance reflects as ever that shopping is what makes the world go round when it is at peace. The real cathedrals have been built on the proceeds. Better that than fighting, power and water cuts, and shanty towns of refugees.

Chris Hutt said...

Thanks for reminding me about St Nick's, as opposed to Harvey Nicks, market. As you say it is in some ways a more modest and discrete manifestation of what Cabot Circus is - a covered market.

But the big difference is in the kind of businesses it supports. Cabot circus is 100% chains, hardly any of them Bristol based. Profits go off to London or beyond.

St Nick's on the other hand has hardly any chains - I suppose Pie Minister is one - and is mostly small Bristol businesses with a high ratio of employment to turnover.

St Nick's gives local entrepreneurs a chance to try out new marketing ideas, to innovate and experiment. Cabot Circus smothers such local initiative.

weggis said...

What amazes me is that the people who go to these places walk for miles. Yet they are the same people who complain about not being able to park in the High Street!

Spectator said...

Sorry Chris, but I've got to disagree with you about the Spanish Inquisition bit... I have a funny feeling that they'd probably consider Mike Norton's worship of money to be heretical... I'll leave the rest to your imagination.

Anonymous said...

I fail to see how bloggers or any other critics present any kind of "threat" to the success or otherwise of the Carboot Circus.

The biggest threat, by some way, is the credit crunch, the impending recession and the fact that the kind of ultra-speculative high finance that built the place now lies in ruins.

Chris Hutt said...

Exactly BB. The Post article does mention the credit crunch too, but only alongside the threat from us cynics. Apparently we're the greatest threat to shopping in Bristol since the Luftwaffe. Someone should check the water in the Post and Press gulag.

Just to demonstrate how prescient some of my observations have been, here's a comment posted by a Portishead resident on the EP site on Friday -

"I used the Long Ashton Park-and-Ride service to get to Cabot Circus for the opening yesterday because I thought the traffic would be horrendous. Fortunately it wasn't . I went back again today( I'm hooked already!) and parked in the new car-park and was amazed at how easy it was to get to, how bright and modern it looked and how close it was to the new centre.Just a short stroll across the bridge and I was back in paradise! I certainly don't begrudge paying over-the-odds for quality and convenience."

Anonymous said...

Given the recent prominent exercise in persuading us that there are other ways of getting to the Circus than by car, It's good to see the extensive and well planned cycle racks to encourage bike use in our cycling city's new shopping extravaganza. Fantastic secure, covered storage...oh wait, sorry, my mistake.
That'll be the 3 sheffield stands plonked out in the corner of the square then, great!

I also liked the pedestrian thinning road that bisects the whole affair. in the absence of any marked crossing points perhaps the buses should be given pedestrian 'cow catchers'.
Or are we to wait for some more pedestrian fatalities (like the centre)before they realise what they've done.

Anonymous said...

A few photos from today's outbreak of undeath amidst the enclosure of another commons are wending their way to flickr as I type; you'll find them here.

The police were a lot friendlier than the mall private security - no surprises there, then ;)

sued said...

I have to say that as someone fundamentally opposed to the whole notion of these temples to conspicuous consumption, I did enjoy walking through Cabot Circus yesterday. This was after my partner told me to stop complaining about the absence of cycle racks around Broadmead where you used to be able to park right by the shops but now have to park on the difficult slope of Union St. Having said that, the price for the poor residents in St Jude's (largely tenants of BCC) is far too high. The lack of Bristol businesses was also spectacular - Chandos Deli is great - and represents the only departure from global corporate bollocks I could find...

A Goth said...

"how run down and neglected the older part of Broadmead now looked. And not just Broadmead but much of central Bristol now appeared tacky and uncared for by comparison."

aaaaaah, and quite soon there may be the profound silence of crumbling ruins inhabited only by nocturnal creatures and flitting shades glimpsed in the periphery of one's vision