If Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh wants a taste of home during his visit to Washington this week, he might consider a trip to McLean, Va., home to the region’s largest indoor mall, Tysons Corner Center. After all, there are few groups more mall-crazy than India’s expanding affluent class.
Back here in the U.S., urban boosters and planners like to predict that malls are “vanishing.” But while consumer-deflated America may suffer from mall fatigue and a hangover from overbuilding, much of the developing world has experienced no such malaise. In 2000, for example, India was virtually mall-less. Today it has several hundred, with scores of new ones on the drawing boards.
Malls are particularly attractive to India’s “aspiring” middle class, including those who have returned from work, study or travel abroad, suggests Vatsala Pant, director of client solutions at AC Neilson in Mumbai. Indian novelist and Mumbai blogger Amit Varma suggests that these folks like malls “because they are relatively clean and sanitized” as opposed to the city’s pollution-choked, beggar-ridden and often foul-smelling streets.
Malls such as those built by mall developer Inorbit in suburban Malad or the new Paladium closer to the center of Mumbai boast many brands familiar to the suburban malls of the West–from Pizza Hut and Reeboks to
This mall mania extends well beyond India. Today Asia is the site of seven of the world’s 10 largest malls, mainly in places like Beijing, Dongguan, China, Dubai and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. By 2010, China alone may be home to seven of the biggest shopping arcades on the planet.
The rapid growth of mall culture in Asia and elsewhere reflects the rising incomes and expectations taking place across the globe. So while many malls struggle in North America, they are thriving in Asia due in part to suburbanization and automobiles. In the first 10 months of 2009, Chinese consumers alone purchased more cars than their American counterparts. India is also going through an automotive revolution, with sales up 20% since April and local firms like Tata, developer of the $2,500 minicar, Nano, gearing up for long-term growth.
It’s not just growing affluence, car culture and suburbanization that are driving people into malls in India and other developing nations. Many of these places–like the American south and southwest–suffer hot, inhospitable climates. In Dubai, where the temperatures even in November hover well into the 90s, malls provide both a diverse shopping experience and relief from the heat.
These malls also play a surprisingly democratic function often under-appreciated by urban theorists, planners and purveyors of architectural nostalgia. While Mumbai’s malls may not host the city’s scores of beggars, they can not be described as the exclusive province of the rich. The affluent may be there, of course, but so would their drivers, the factory workers and others of India’s growing aspirational population.
“You get to see a massive cross-section of people, there for different reasons, all breathing the same [air conditioning],” Varma observes. “And really, these people only come together in the malls.”
This oddly democratic phenomenon is also evident in the nearly 6 million square foot Dubai Mall. Of course, there are the evidently wealthy local Arabs in their traditional white flowing robes, but you also can spot the Filipino maids, British bankers, American and Korean engineers and a diverse array of Indians all shopping, eating and conversing in the air-cooled commercial oasis.
“It’s the one place where people share a common culture,” observes Tabitha Decker, a Yale Ph.D. candidate working at the Dubai School of Government. “In a place like this, these are the boulevards.”
This mall-ization of the developing world predictably offends many American and European critics who wish that the Third World remain “authentic.” The widely read Mexico City-based blogger Daniel Hernandez thinks places like Mexico’s swank Centro Santa Fe, on la capital’s southern edge, represents “all that is wrong with the rapid commercialization and privatization of urban development.”
I wonder if he has tried making that case to the shoppers who flock west to the Santa Fe mall or the more middle-income Centro Comercial Perisur. These commercialized Mexicans look, dress and act remarkably like, well, Texans at the Houston Galleria rather than denizens of the traditional marketplaces so beloved by tourists and writers.
Mexico-born developer Jose de Jesus Legaspi suggests that Mexicans come to malls because they find them more appealing than the somewhat grimy, and sometimes crime-ridden, traditional downtowns. “Some second- and third-generation Latinos may feel Mexicans should be dressing in huaraches, but really these places are like the traditional zocolo, a place to gather on Sunday,” Legaspi says.
This social role, Legaspi believes, may prove critical to the future of the malls in America as well. Like many things in post-crash America, shopping is changing. But even though they’ve cut their purchases, Americans are hardly deserting malls any more than they are traditional urban downtown shopping districts. Just look at the dismal condition of Chicago’s State Street.
Yet despite their travails, most malls likely won’t be stripped down in favor of dense urban neighborhoods or green fantasy zones for vegetable hothouses or bio-fuel production. Instead their future will depend on evolving from a purely consumptive palace to a “gathering place” that is safe and friendly, particularly for working- and middle-class families. In this sense, India, China, Dubai and Mexico may be not imitators as much as harbingers.
Not surprisingly, in America the ethnic market is setting the new tone. The Latino-oriented mall Plaza Mexico in Lynwood, Calif., a 400,000 sq. foot open-air commercial center, consciously recreates the old zocolo through historic architecture, music and family-oriented fun. Even more ambitious is the enormous 1.2 million square foot La Gran Plaza in Fort Worth, Texas, which features such family-friendly fare as mariachis, Mayan dance, horse shows and even a Sunday Mass presided over by a local bishop.
Equally revealing, both these centers also accommodate smaller, independent businesses in an adjacent mercado, in La Gran Plaza’s case one that extends 120,000 sq. feet. And you don’t have to have an ethnic focus for this formula to work. The Grove, a highly successful Los Angeles Mall, has emphasized family entertainment and a nearby link to the Farmer’s Market, a long-standing bastion of small, independently run businesses.
Rick Caruso, the developer of the Grove, which now ranks among Southern California’s top tourist destinations, sees future American malls focusing on their social role, with closer links to local cultural events and celebrations. This is one way, Caruso believes, malls can compete with both big-box stores–stand alone centers built around a Wal-Mart, Target or Costco–and the rising force of Internet marketing.
“The discussion of retail in America is really about community,” Caruso notes. “Lots of communities want to preserve something of Main Street and to keep the organic retailers who grew up in the area and are one of a kind. I think it works best in the long run. The key for a developer is how to keep both that feeling and the newer developments. You want to be seen as part of the future of the community.”
Despite the predictions of their demise, the mall, both at home and abroad, appears far from finished. Like all urban forms, they must adjust to changing conditions but will likely thrive well after most of their critics are enjoying their university pensions. It looks like our increasingly small, globalized world will also be a malled one.
This article originally appeared at Forbes.com.