Jan Gehl, a renowned Urban Design Consultant in Denmark, has spent years studying public spaces. According to his findings, these spaces in architecture deserve a more careful design and thoughtful articulation. These are where urban recreation and sensory experience spring to life.
However, in recent months, the idea of public interaction has changed to a large extent. Bustling cities wear a deserted look and spaces like malls, gyms, sports complexes lay in ruins. With less trade and recurring losses, many businesses across the world have resorted to shutting their activities indefinitely.
Nevertheless, things were not always like this.
At one point in history, shopping complexes and malls experienced a big boom. The organized retail trend in India began with the turn of the millennia. Since then, these complexes were no longer mere places to trade. They became the symbol of an upper-middle-class society in India. As a result, the consumed the mall culture, and saw them as a parameter to judge a city.
Fast forward to the pandemic era, and the way we perceive malls has undergone a paradigm shift. Under normal circumstances, crowds were considered as an integral part of the city culture. However, with the onset of COVID-19, we have all dispersed.
Will the malls ever function like how they were before? How then can they spring back?
One basic notion to consider while re-thinking about the articulation of malls is social distancing. The flow of footfall from entry to exit, along with the circulation within the mall, will have to be managed to keep in mind the guidelines to maintain enough distance between fellow mall-goers. Shuttered spaces and the congested areas will have to free up and move away, allowing for breathing space between activities. Seating layout in the food courts has to be re-arranged and contactless delivery of food has to be made essential.
Before the pandemic, the idea of malls itself was sufficient to attract users. However, with changing social behavior, the shopping malls will have to up their entertainment offering and provide experience-based shopping offers. For example, integrating smart mirrors and virtual dressing rooms might help clothing brands jumpstart their business. They could find ways to move the stores online. This will not only solve the issue of social distancing but will also provide more flexibility to the user. The spaces left empty can be repurposed into essential services required for the city to function. They could even morph into satellite offices, co-working spaces, or other entertainment facilities.
A majority of the malls function on artificial ventilation. Air conditioning and air-cooling are some of their benefits, and we have all enjoyed the ambient environment they provide. However, the fear of viruses spreading through air cooling systems will force the malls to redesign their arrangement. They could look at a once-through system where the air will not be allowed to recirculate. This will reduce the chances of any pathogens released into the air within the malls.
A change in the circulation pattern will affect the vehicular movement. Parking layouts will have to assign more spaces for bike and cycle parking. The car-parking layout has to be re-arranged to make enough space between each slot. An in-house store warehouse will reduce the need for transportation from various parts of the city to the malls.
With every change we envision, we architects will be imprinting a new social revolution. The pandemic has brought to attention multiple ways in which public spaces can be modified to suit our lifestyle going forward. Physical distancing has led to people burrowing into their own mind space. They are unsure about moving through terrains they are yet to explore. Hence, as designers, it becomes crucial for us to reroute crowds to stay safe and stay connected at the same time.