How the democratisation of design is shaping the retail centres of tomorrow.

One of the country’s leading mixed-use architects says you can count on one hand the number of neighbourhood centres in Australia with the capacity to play the social infrastructure role expected of them today.

HDR Principal and National Director of Retail and Mixed-Use Susanne Pini says the generic design of existing neighbourhood shopping centres results in physical and cultural isolation.

A radical shift needs to take place, she says.

“Design which resonates with the community and is of its time and of its place has been the issue. Design which reflects its community will be the solution,” Ms Pini says.

“Traditional shopping centres are providers of ‘stuff’. People come, buy, then leave. They’re generic in design and there’s no natural light so you lose track of the day. The internally focused ‘Vegas’ model makes no reference to the community externally. It’s an architecture of ‘anywhere, anyplace, anyone’ which produces the effect of ‘nothing, nowhere for nobody’,” says Ms Pini.

“Limited and stretched local resources have authorities struggling to provide all the ‘glue’ such as libraries, markets, community centres and local shops, that used to bind our communities together.

“This means the role of the local shopping centre has had to grow and evolve to take on the role of the suburb’s town square. The shopping centre is becoming the community lounge room, dining room and backyard.

“This recognition necessitates a new design approach, moving away from a model of isolation to a model of connection. They need to form part of our everyday life and not because of the ‘stuff’ we need but because they connect us to the community. They need to connect physically and culturally to the community they are within.

“Shopping centres must deconstruct the pieces that have us living in isolation and connect them together. And while it sounds obvious, you can count on one hand the number of centres in Australia that actually do that,” says Ms Pini.

Ms Pini identifies The Ponds Shopping Centre and Rouse Hill Town Centre in Sydney as being in this extreme minority. HDR has also designed the town centre for Ed.Square, a brand new mixed-use community in south west Sydney, to embrace new community design expectations.

The democratisation of design

“The ‘democratisation of design’ means there is no longer anywhere to hide,” Ms Pini says.

“The prevalence of design programs, and the elevation of the notion of design in the public consciousness, has brought greater attention to the importance and possibility of design when it comes to the community arena.

“This is the democratisation of design. Once viewed as the exclusive domain of the affluent, good design is now a community expectation. It is a symbol of the pride we take in our towns. But how many shopping centres in communities across the country are a source of pride for the people that visit them?”

The rise of the super-neighbourhood shopping centre

According to Joanna Russell, General Manager – Retail Development, Frasers Property Australia, increased design expectations have given rise to a new sub-sector in retail assets: the super-neighbourhood centre.

Typically between 10,000sqm and 25,000sqm in retail area, super-neighbourhood centres differ from sub-regional centres through their tenant mix and response to local community needs. They may share some qualities with sub-regionals, including commitments from anchor tenants, but the slightly smaller retail area, as well as the target mix of anchor tenants and supporting speciality shops, reflect their community in a much deeper way.

Super-neighbourhood centres balance everyday convenience shopping needs with non-retail services, such as collaborative working spaces, lounge areas, education zones and childcare, as well as experiential offers, such as cinemas, play areas, yoga and meditation areas, and gardens.

“The super-neighbourhood centre has now emerged conceptually, but not yet in widespread reality. But these centres have an opportunity to claim the position of the community’s natural heart and soul and the right design will legitimise this claim,” Ms Russell says.

“These centres have the opportunity to create a sense of place where people really feel comfortable and want to spend time.

“To achieve this, the design must understand and consider more than just census demographics or LGA statistics of the local community, going much deeper to investigate the surroundings, history, culture and aspirations of the people that live there.

“Going beyond the site’s footprint, the super-neighbourhood centre should be a natural part of the townscape, designed from a whole-of-neighbourhood perspective, complementing the existing amenity, nestled within the natural street grid, and in symbiosis with the land and the people in its catchment.

“Achieve this balance, and you create a super-neighbourhood centre that the local community feels belongs to them. It becomes a source of pride. Visiting the centre becomes part of daily routines.

“Get the design wrong – design in a generic or inauthentic way – and the centre does not form an intrinsic part of the neighbourhood,” Ms Russell says.

For more information, visit Frasers Property Australia