Mixing shopping malls and transit centers in Hong Kong

Hong Kong demonstrates a very different model of shopping malls compared to the American suburban mall:

Hong Kong has more than 300 shopping centers, but most of the city’s malls don’t sit on asphalt parking lots; rather, they’re above subway stations or underneath skyscrapers. In my book “Mall City: Hong Kong’s Dreamworlds of Consumption,” I describe how some are connected to so many towers that they form megastructures—cities in and of themselves that can accommodate tens of thousands of people who live, work and play without ever going outside. Hong Kong also has the world’s tallest vertical malls—“mall skyscrapers” that rise up to 26 levels, with crisscrossing “expresators” that shoot shoppers high up into soaring atriums…

As convenient this urban form may be, it does come with strings attached. In the case of Union Square—as in many other podium-tower developments—the mall is deliberately placed at the intersection of all pedestrian flows, between all entry points into the structure and the residential, office and transit areas…

For millions of residents and pedestrians, then, entering commercialized areas becomes an inevitability, not a choice. It normalizes a culture of consumerism: Everyday life is played out on the terrain of the mall, and the private shopping atrium takes on the role of the public square. Because Hong Kong’s apartments are small—its summer climate hot and humid—the mall becomes a default gathering place. And why not? There’s plenty of space and the air-conditioning is free. And while you’re there, you might as well browse around the shops and spend some cash…

The Asian hyper-dense urban mall is also making an appearance in American cities. Miami has Brickell City Centre, a five-story mall in the heart of the city. Covering three city blocks, it’s topped by three high-rises (and was built by a Hong Kong developer). New York City is building a seven-story mall attached to two skyscrapers in Hudson Yards, America’s largest private development. The Santiago Calatrava-designed Oculus—the centerpiece of the World Trade Center—has a mall with over 100 stores, with its white-ribbed atrium attracting an army of tourists taking pictures with selfie-sticks. Since the hub connects office buildings with train and subway stations, the stores are also “irrigated” by the 50,000 commuters who pass by each weekday.

American shopping malls tend to get a bad rap: they take up a lot of space with their endless parking lots, they often require a car in order to get to one, and are centers of consumerism. The Hong Kong malls eliminate two of these major issues: they are a more compact use of space and don’t require cars. Indeed, it is clever to combine mass transit space with a mall. However, these integrated malls may present even larger consumption issues since travelers have to go through these spaces rather than choose to go there. Isn’t this the complaint about gift stores in museums, zoos, or amusement parks where you finish an exhibit or ride and then have to go through the items for sale? And mass transit is supposed to be a public good so it may be a bit strange to mix it so closely with private profit-making. (I wonder if the transit facilities/authorities could take a cut of the sales in these transit malls and funnel more money into transit systems. Is this a way to fund necessary infrastructure maintenance and improvement in the United States?)

I’d love to see an analysis of how sales change when people are intentionally funneled through consumption spaces like this.

Explaining why Americans desire larger homes

Here are several possible explanations for why Americans want bigger houses:

But there’s no real “normal’’ when it comes to desired home size — except the persistent perception that size equates to prestige, said Dak Kopec, director of Design for Human Health at Boston Architectural College. “Throughout all cultures, bigger is better and associated with wealth and power.’’…

“It’s clear that the American dream of living in a big house on a large lot has not gone away,’’ said Ralph McLaughlin, Trulia’s chief economist…

One reason American homes are so big, Powell argued, is that we have more disposable income. “You’re not just buying a 2,000-square-foot house, you’re also going to fill it with a whole bunch of stuff,’’ she said. The larger house and its contents soon become your new baseline, she said, as the furniture, paintings, and lamps you buy blend into the background to become part of your environment. “And then you can only upsize from there if you choose to keep your possessions.’’…

Dunn speculates that a larger home could boost happiness if it reduces conflict. “If you have a house that enables you to get along well with your spouse, if each person has a little of their own space, that might reduce conflict,’’ she said, “but I suspect there are seriously diminishing returns on that.’’

With these four factors – the status of a larger house, the American Dream, more disposable income and more stuff, and finding more happiness – perhaps we could argue that it requires some effort for Americans to live in a smaller place. It is not impossible to do so and certain factors, such as living in an expensive metropolitan area like New York City or San Francisco, can override the cultural conditioning to have a larger house. But, the American inertia may just be to have a larger dwelling.

We could also add some additional factors leading to larger homes in the United States:

  1. Suburban sprawl leads to more room for larger homes.
  2. Americans privilege private spaces over public spaces.
  3. Over the decades, the government and other actors helped make it easier for more people to own homes.
  4. Americans don’t necessarily need the space but they like the flexibility that more room provides such as having a hobby room or having children, parents, and/or relatives live with them.

Asking again: who buys McMansions?

Given the negative connotations of the term McMansion, who exactly purchases such homes? The A.V. Club takes a quick shot:

It doesn’t seem likely that McMansion Hell will make these kinds of houses disappear from the landscape. Not as long as there are orthodontists and hedge-fund managers with money to burn.

This is a standard claim: the people who move into McMansions are the nouveau riche and they want the home to impress others. They are not concerned with architectural purity; they just want neighbors and people to drive by and be wowed by the grandiosity and features. But, is this actually true? We don’t know some fairly basic information, such as who lives in McMansions or what they actually think about domestic architecture.

For me, the basic question is this: if McMansions are so unquestionably bad, whether due to architecture or excessive consumption or contributing to suburban sprawl, why do people continue to move into them or live in them? There is something in the McMansion that appeals to a good number of Americans with the means to afford them (and before the housing bubble burst, more of those who maybe couldn’t afford them). And if you oppose McMansions, I’m guessing the architecture criticism simply doesn’t register with many Americans. The postwar era is littered with bad housing (I know ranch homes get some love today but they aren’t special) and aesthetics may not matter much compared to other factors (like the quest for more space or being in certain desirable locations) when purchasing a home.

New Australian homes shrinking in size

Not too long ago, new Australian homes rivaled those of the United States. Times have changed:

The country’s homes — some of the biggest in the world — reached peak size in 2009 at an ­average of 222sq m for newly built houses and apartments combined, according to research under­taken exclusively for The Weekend ­Australian.

But the global financial crisis ­put paid to that. The average new home now stands at 192sq m, making it smaller than in 2001, senior KPMG analyst Simon Kuestenmacher found in an analysis of 15 years of data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

“Market pressures, a shift in values to ‘less is more’ and spending on experiences rather than material goods, especially among Gen Y, has put Australia on a trajectory towards smaller homes,” Kuestenmacher noted…

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Such trends regarding home sizes can fluctuate as economic conditions, local regulations, and cultural norms change. Now that the new home size has shrunk in Australia, will this continue for a long time? Hard to tell.

I also like the extra analysis that breaks down home size by location: there is not necessarily a singular trend in a country. While much analysis of home size in the United States relies on the single figure produced by the Census each year, I imagine there are some disparate trends across cities and regions in the U.S.

Adaptations to Walmart leaving communities

Joel Kotkin considers the fate of smaller communities where Walmart has decided to close stores:

None of this suggests that the retreat of big boxes from smaller towns and some urban areas will be painless. Yet those who see this trend as the harbinger of the end of malls or Main Streets may be in for a surprise. Rather than die off, bricks-and-mortar shopping will change, adding new elements and moving from ever greater uniformity to more variety and differentiation, which are critical to independent business’s survival. Much of this change will take place in small towns, but also in suburban areas, which have long been the happy hunting ground of big boxes.

Why not in the big cities? One of the chief ironies of our times is that chains and their attendant sameness now define much of our most sophisticated urban core—Starbucks on every corner, global brands and restaurants serving the same trendy cuisine. The recovery of large cities, suggests New York researcher Sharon Zukin, has also made them more alike by “bringing in the same development ideas—and the same conspicuous textual allusions and iconic corporate logos inevitably affixed to downtown architectural trophies—to cities across the globe.” Efforts to make the city “safer and less strange to outsiders’ eyes”—tourists, expatriates, media producers, and affluent consumers—are making one global city barely indistinguishable from another…

Some small towns—and suburbs even more so—will be transformed by immigrants and millennials, who may want to set up their own unique shops along the very Main Streets once targeted by firms like Walmart. In wealthier communities, this may mean more boutiques and high-end restaurants. But among less affluent areas, other institutions, such as cooperatives—300 already nationwide and another 250 on the way, as well as farmers markets—could provide some of the products that many once found at Walmart…

As the retail world become more digitally focused, and less big-box-dominated, there is a golden opportunity to restore the geographic and local diversity that has seemed doomed for nearly a half-century, but now may enjoy a new burst of life.

There is little doubt that the retail industry will continue to change. Walmart and other large corporations may seem inevitable today but they didn’t exist decades ago and may not have much presence in the future. Yet, Kotkin seems pretty optimistic about online retail which requires its own set of adjustments as well as infrastructure that could be threatened in the future.

For small towns and many suburbs, do these future changes leave much space for residents themselves to create and experience local differences? On one hand, online retail offers customization yet relies on large companies located elsewhere and on the other hand, local diversity in things like restaurants and small stores draws upon local entrepreneurs. Is the secret to promote an experienced based consumption – local culture and food – as opposed to decades of goods based consumption?

Demolition for a teardown, clothes in the closet and all

Many neighbors don’t like teardowns and one residents highlight that the new property owners didn’t even empty the old home:

This house is two houses away from us. The lady who lived in this house passed away a few months ago. A builder bought the house for $660,000 and a mortgage was taken out for $1,178,000 on it. So what this means is it’s probably going to be sold for a minimum of $1.5 million dollars…

The builder didn’t even empty the closet.

On one hand, if the whole house is going, why not simply trash everything inside rather than spend the time sorting it all out? On the other hand, displaying such a picture highlights several features:

  1. It increases the tragedy factor many claim are inherent in teardowns. These aren’t just houses; these places where people have lived for decades and threatening the character (and social life) of the neighborhood is not a trivial matter.
  2. Americans have so much stuff through our consumption patterns that it simply doesn’t make sense to try to salvage any of these items. It often may not be worth it to even donate the items as it is too easy to throw it out and/or obtain more.

Now that I think about, there are numerous photographers and artists in recent decades who highlight ruins in big cities – like Detroit or New York City. Where is the major project that documents the sadness of teardowns? It may not quite have the noir allure of the city but there is long history of suburban critiques to draw upon: the mass produced raised ranch of the post-war era is even more desolate in the snow and shadow of the wrecking ball.

Yes, Thoreau would have disliked McMansions

One writer describes how Thoreau helped her move on from her McMansion:

“The cost of a thing is the amount of what
I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it,
immediately or in the long run.”
Henry David Thoreau, Walden

These words hit me hard at the age of 29. It was 2008, and depending on the hour, I was watching my marriage unravel, witnessing the collapse of the financial markets from the office of my first-year financial planning business, or determining whether I was even or underwater on a 2,500-square-foot McMansion. Collectively, my husband and I were $275,000 in debt…

One day I picked up the book and read it all the way through. I looked around my home and finally understood: I was drowning in debt, and my lifestyle was making me miserable. I exhausted hours every Sunday dusting, vacuuming, and mopping. I spent the majority of my time either working to pay for things like furniture or electronic gadgets or fearfully maintaining them by obsessively dusting and scrubbing. I could see my future, and it looked bleak…

Seven years have gone by since I left that lifestyle, and so much has changed. I now make about half the annual income I once did, teaching yoga, writing about health and wellness, and waitressing part time. I have good days and bad days, but I no longer feel controlled by debt. I take 12–16 weeks off each year and one winter spent four months on the Big Island of Hawaii, eating homemade dinners on the beach and listening to the trumpets of humpback whales. In moments like those, when the magic and wonder of the world offer themselves so vividly, I experience so much gratitude for simply being alive.

It is interesting to note that the anti-consumption narrative of today – avoid the McMansions and big debt, simplify your life, pay more attention to things you love – is not exactly new. It could appeal to more people today after the spread of consumerism throughout much of American society with the prosperity of the 20th century. McMansions make easy targets since they require a large financial outlay (not only is it costly but it requires payments for a significant portion of adult life), require maintenance (whether because of cleaning, repairs, or making use of all that space), and critics argue they are meant to impress other people.

In the end, I wonder if Thoreau would find such efforts as described above enough to truly get away from modern life. Are vast resources now required to get away from it all?