Hong Kong’s famous ‘mall cities’ – the future of brick and mortar?

Hong Kong is the world capital of malls. Sandwiched between subways and skyscrapers, Hong Kong's malls have become cities of themselves – ‘mall cities’ – where tens of thousands of people live, work, and play. The book ‘Mall City: Hong Kong’s Dream Worlds of Consumption’, explores the present and the future of the huge shopping temples that Hong Kong is famous for.

With almost one mall per square mile Hong Kong is the mall–densest place on earth. Over the years, the city’s shopping centres have evolved into ‘mall cities’, in the middle of pedestrian flows, with residential, office and transit functions. Today’s newest malls in Hong Kong are built with residential, hotels, and office towers.

The ‘mall cities’ reflect the importance of retail in Hong Kong’s urban economy. Hong Kong has become the retail destination for China, the fastest growing consumer market on earth. Mainland shoppers flood the city, many of them with same-day return tickets and empty suitcases. Developers in the mainland and other places have copied Hong Kong’s mall cities, aiming to achieve compact, transit-oriented, and lucrative developments.

Expensive retail space
Hong Kong also has the world’s highest-priced retail space: its high-end shopping malls rented for an average yearly $4,328 (€4,011) per square foot, twice as high as New York’s fifth avenue, four times more than Paris’s or London’s upscale retail districts.

The book ‘Mall City’ is an investigation of the city planning, architectural and cultural aspects of Hong Kong’s big malls. “It explores the city from a multidisciplinary and visual angle”, says author Stefan Al, who gathered a large number of interesting essays from experts that provide insight from different disciplines, including architecture, urban planning, geography, cultural studies, and anthropology. “Together, the chapters offer explanations of how the mall city came into being, what it means for Hong Kong communities, and what we can learn from this development.”

Lesson for China’ cities
But what can be learned? Can the ‘mall cities’ be the very model to which China’s and Asia’s future dense cities can be shaped? Stefan Al suggests that city planners, urban designers and architects that look at Hong Kong’s malls, will find that the book offers lessons on three levels:

Number one: it opens a window into Asia’s ‘Shopping Paradise’. Hong Kong is the preferred place to shop for Chinese consumers, where all brands can be found under one roof. “Unlike ‘dead’ malls in the United States, mall retail is alive and kicking in Hong Kong. It also has the earth’s most visited and tallest malls, reaching up to 26-stories with magnificent atriums and ‘expresscalators’, whisking shoppers up multiple stories in a matter of seconds. The question is: is this the future of shopping in other Asian cities, now that Hong Kong developers are constructing similar projects elsewhere?”

Density can be liveable
Second: the book offers a peek into the world’s laboratory of vertical urbanism. While high population density is often associated with crowding and congestion, the Hong Kong developments show how density can be liveable, thanks to their integration in mass transit and new forms of open space. “Hong Kong’s high-density megastructures consist of residential and office towers standing on a base with a shopping mall, often connected to railway infrastructure. Could this extremely high-density, mixed-use, and transit-oriented urban form be a model for future cities?”

Commercial pressure in cities
To Stefan Al, the book also challenges assumptions about public space. What happens to the public realm when cities are getting denser and under intense commercial pressure?
“In Hong Kong you can walk from mall to mall for miles, in climate-controlled environments indoor without ever setting foot into the street. These retail corridors, footbridges, and escalators are publicly accessible, convenient, and often a preferred place to be. But the air-conditioned spaces in the mega-structures are also conditioned by the rules of the mega-corporation. What are the limits of new type of ‘public’ urban space network?”

Mall City: Hong Kong’s Dreamworlds of Consumption (2016, University of Hawaii Press; Hong Kong University Press)

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