Shopping malls are fascinating. The interior of these structures are designed to disorientate the average consumer. There are no windows, no clocks to visualize the passage of time, their floorplan often resembles a maze. Distractions of flashy sale signs, kiosk displays and greasy aromas from the food fair can keep hordes of shoppers trapped for hours. It's a wonder any of us escape these colossal structures at all.
But surrounding these shopping malls is something I find far more interesting than the Consumer America equivalent of Pan's Labyrinth: an expansive perimeter of parking. For every acre of shopping centre, it seems that there are two acres of parking. The journey through this parking lot is a gauntlet of distracted drivers, uncontrolled intersections, and people who back out of stalls without ever checking a mirror. To learn the dance of "the approach to the shopping centre" is a necessity for North American living.
Mall parking lots are huge. The .jpeg below is a Google Earth screenshot of Bonnie Doon Shopping Centre, a mid-sized shopping complex located close to my neighborhood. Its footprint occupies nearly 12 hectares in a largely-gentrifying, mature area. Of those 12 hectares, roughly 7.5 hectares (63% of the total land) is flat, surface-level parking (for reference, the main quad at the U of A is roughly two hectares).
The fact that Bonnie Doon Mall dedicates 4 uAlberta main quads to the storing of automobiles boggles my mind. It's a largely dying retail centre: losing its two anchor tenants (Sears and Target) in the last five years. I, along with most residents of the surrounding community, would have no reason to use this space if it wasn't for the Safeway (and, sadly for my health, the Little Caesars). Yet it's parking lot extends outward like seats in a coliseum, ready for and expecting the masses that never arrive.
Even if Bonnie Doon was wildly popular, I think I would still be shocked at the size of the parking lot. I know it's no surprise that an Urban Planning student hates the sight of expansive parking lots - it's even a little cliche in my opinion. But for as much as I hate cliches, I hate that god-forsaken asphalt moat around Bonnie Doon even more. I no longer see it as the norm, the expected; as I did when I was younger - I see as wasted opportunity. Parking lots are built out, instead of up, solely for economic, bottom-line purposes. Building a multi-story parkade is a silly idea to a developer when land is treated as a cheap commodity. Why build up when building out is virtually free?
But really, it's not. It's not free at all. The cost might not be felt by the developer's chequebook, but it certainly is shouldered by the rest of the city, for generations to come. What could have those seven and a half hectares been? What unique forms and uses might have manifested had the land not been flattened and smothered under a thick coat of hot tar and concrete?
I don't hate surface parking lots because I think drivings evil. I've never enlisted in the so-called "war on cars." I hate surface parking lots because I love the land on which I stand. I want the space that surrounds us to be used to it's fullest potential, and a 7.5 hectare parking-lot surrounding a dying mall is nowhere close to full potential.
Right now, the Valley Line is being constructed along 83 street, it will stop at Bonnie Doon. Plans are in the works to transform that 12 hectare footprint into something that values the land it occupies a little more. I can only hope other malls will follow.
- Jordan Riemer, GAPSS 2017