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April 2016

Mable So, Principal at Gensler, speaks about how smart urban planning can create unique high-street shopping experiences in hot climates such as in the Gulf region.

The UAE has recently launched a survey to learn what makes people happy. To be happy is, I say, a very key element in life. Design professionals have a great responsibility to ensure the built environment improves people’s lifestyle and enhances their level of happiness and, more importantly, health.

Promoting healthy living often starts with 3 broad topics: Eat Well, Be Active and Community Living.  These topics will be supported by a range of strategies such as promoting locally produced food, increased nutrition, implement pedestrian amenities to support walkability, install cycle networks to encourage biking instead of driving, and improve social capital for a better sense of community. You would advertise about healthy food, construct continuous jogging and cycling tracks and perhaps build parks to enhance the community identity. Such “hardware” or tools provide generic answers for any city. If we are to tailor an answer that is suitable for the region’s culture yet to use a softer way to promote some healthy activities, how would we do it?

A regional challenge

Creating a healthy environment is an ambitious goal in the Middle East. Some say that the harsh and extreme weather prevents outdoor activities such as biking and walking most months of the year therefore promoting healthy living is more difficult. Cars are the primary means to move from point A to point B and have hence become kings. Urban designers often have to prioritise city structure to allow efficient road networks, as a result the region lacks an urban grain that encourages walking. Walking has proven to increase fitness, reduce levels of obesity and lower levels of chronic disease.

If we use one of the region’s favourite activities, shopping, as a tool, can we encourage walking yet create a new way of healthy living?  High-street walking and shopping culture are potentially great ways to promote more movement in the population.

High-streets are traditionally designed as the spine of a city with other destinations connected to it.  People will stroll along, meet friends, gather together in groups and create community cohesion.  Imagine you are on Oxford Street in London, one of the most successful high-streets in the world with large flagship stores of many of the world’s most iconic brands in contemporary buildings. You then walk along Regent Street and you’re taken back to the 19th century. At the end of Regent Street is Piccadilly Circus, the entertainment district with the famous Leicester Square being the place for celebration. The urban grain continues to change as you walk east towards Covent Garden where most streets are narrow and traffic free, open-air markets with outdoor seating and smaller retail units with a lower ceiling height. In this 3 km walk, there are multiple destinations that attract strollers to explore and the change of city character keeps visitors’ interest to continue to discover.

The solution

With the climate in the Middle East where outdoor activities are not entirely favourable all year round, how do we design a suitable environment that allows the “high-street walking exercise” to take place 365 days a year? Can we design an outdoor shopping experience while taking all the benefits of an indoor environment?

The answer lies in good urban planning rather than in traditional shopping mall design. You walk in a city, you will not require escalators to take you to a different level, and you certainly will not be under a glass roof when you are in any of the great cities around the world. When planned correctly in scale, you can achieve the right atmosphere of a high-street that is suitably covered to allow the space to be air conditioned yet allowing maximum sunlight to simulate a natural environment. This creates a strong connection with the outdoors and a comfortable, air conditioned environment all year round.

The built environment with the appropriate structure of open spaces and streetscape can be impactful on the overall health of an urban centre. The design of spaces and buildings can encourage people to incorporate physical activity in their everyday life – whether they are indoor or outdoor. Some may like dedicating time to exercise in parks each day, but if we can fundamentally integrate healthy activities to developments we may well be benefitting from the best of both worlds. Walkability requires a range of strategies that consider human scale, pedestrian comfort, safety and land use as well as responding to cultural characteristics, elements that one would also study when designing for shopping.

Large scale developments like shopping malls are most successful when utilising urban planning principles to achieve commercial goals while at the same time, promoting a comfortable walkable environment.  The clue lies in the 3 km walk – different district character to drive the feeling of exploration which sustains people’s interest when shopping as there are more places to discover.

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