At the heart of the government’s aspiration to regenerate regional towns and cities lies a sleeping giant that holds a significant key to levelling up: the oft-overlooked shopping centre.

Trevor Morriss

Trevor Morriss

Tired and unloved, shopping centres and retail arcades have taken their share of beatings. The tide of ecommerce has crept closer to the castle walls, accelerated by a pandemic that precipitated a structural shift to digital retail at the expense of bricks-and-mortar offerings.

The empty shops and quiet corridors haven’t gone unnoticed. The value of shopping centres has dropped across the country.

The traditional shopping centre formula placed big anchor tenant department stores at the centre of buildings and largely worked. Between 2016 and 2021, this template collapsed as 83% of British department stores closed. Cut adrift from the traditionally safe retail sector, many centres appear rudderless.

Does the US give us a glimpse of the future? Hundreds of malls have closed in the last two decades. But while the US is often seen as an indicator of real estate trends, the future of our shopping centres is not aligned.

The bulk of British malls are centrally located in densely populated urban areas. Their prime location means that whether a centre is subjectively beautiful or ugly, it can be viably revamped to work commercially and for the community.

Most shopping centres can simultaneously attract tenants while becoming more socially valuable. Retail-focused shopping centres have tended to close early, meaning that chunks of urban centres are unused in the evening. Co-locating retail, offices, hospitality, leisure, public space and homes in these buildings can reinvigorate town centres while creating a genuinely communal space locals can enjoy beyond the 9am-to-6pm shopping window.

Some shopping centres will struggle to draw the public back in because of their layout. These buildings are still valuable real estate because they can host last-mile logistics centres and ‘dark kitchens’ – delivery-only restaurants that will fit in perfectly with shopping centres surrounded by dense locations. The convenience economy and shopping centres need not compete but rather complement.

Shopping habits are changing, but rather than making malls obsolete, these shifts will allow them to become genuine hubs of both employment and enjoyment. The process of looking at shopping centres through a new lens will require collaboration between architects, developers, masterplanners and planners.

Britain’s first modern mall, the Bullring, opened in Birmingham in 1964. Local historian Carl Chinn said the centre was billed as the ‘ultimate shopping experience’. In the end, shopping centres created one-dimensional spaces that reframed urban centres as primarily a place for shopping.

Collectively, we can redefine and diversify how we use land in the centre of our communities, boosting town centre regeneration and levelling up.

Trevor Morriss is principal at architecture practice SPPARC