For a building of relatively few storeys, West Edmonton Mall has cast a surprisingly long shadow over the city. It has often been argued that West Ed was responsible for sucking all the air out of downtown as the city’s premier shopping destination, but this is somewhat unfair. The death of Edmonton’s downtown, which reached its nadir in the mid-90’s and only now seems to be hitting its stride again, was not likely due to any one thing. The rise of malls in suburbs all over the city, the insensitive redevelopment of much of downtown in the 1970’s, the suffering of Jasper Avenue retailers during protracted LRT construction; all of these things likely played a role. But during the 80’s and 90’s, if you asked “what killed downtown?”, you could be forgiven for thinking that West Ed was the one big obvious answer.
Locally, West Edmonton Mall is often simply referred to as “The Mall”, because there really is no other that even comes close. From 1986 to 2004, it held the Guinness World Record for “Largest Enclosed Shopping Mall”. Since then it has steadily slipped down the list to 10th, eclipsed by new monster malls in China, southeast Asia and the Middle East. But it remains the largest in North America and, more than just a place to shop and eat mediocre food court pizza, The Mall trades in spectacle. It still holds records for the world’s largest indoor waterpark, world’s largest indoor amusement park, and, dubiously, world’s largest parking lot, not to mention hosting a life-size replica of a Spanish galleon, an NHL-size skating rink and live sea lion shows. A city within a city, West Ed is the workplace of roughly 24,000 people and it receives more than 30 million visitors each year. In a city of few recognized tourist attractions, West Ed, embarrassingly for many urbanites, tops the list.
Is the embarrassment justified? What’s wrong with a mall anyway? In comparison to big box developments, doesn’t it offer a more urban experience, making you park your car and walk? This is true, but the mall experience is typically derided as inauthentic, a sanitized space with no homeless people, no dirt, no conflict. The mall is a mediated space, privately owned and intended to lighten your wallet in exchange for goods and an experience. The mall expects you to behave. West Edmonton Mall would never tolerate the Occupy movement, for instance, nor on-site protests against the captivity of its sea lions, nor would it tolerate misbehaving youth. Few mall-goers are likely hoping for those sorts of uncomfortable “experiences” when they set out on their shopping trips. But when being out in public is privatized, do we not lose something? Doesn’t the fact we will never be challenged by neighbours and citizens in the mediated space of the mall rob us of the very value of truly public spaces?
Most mall-goers are likely uninterested in such esoteric debates. Love it or hate it, few of us escape its clutches entirely. Its inevitability is guaranteed by that hard-to-find Christmas gift, that particular brand of jeans for the teenager, or the obligatory tour for out of town guests. And for those without particular expectations about what public urban life should be like, West Ed seems to give them what they are looking for: a place to shop and browse, to be entertained and relax, to see and be seen.
Photos by Tom Young and Owen Murray.
I was just saying last night that the mall is a safe bastion to tourists from smaller centers unaccustomed to downtown living.
And yet the mall is overrun with people, much more than downtown would be. Seems like a perception issue around downtowns, don’t you think? A hangover view from the late 20th century that said they were dangerous and dirty?
What struck me as I read your post, Tom, is how unfamiliar the Mall feels to me now. It’s strange considering how much time I spent there as a teenager. Thanks for reminding those of us inclined to spend time downtown or in Old Strathcona about the big building on the western horizon. Like it or not — go to it or not — it’s a significant activity hub and it isn’t going away.
To be fair i never shop at the mall. However The Mall is by far one of the safest places to shop. and to hang out. i have never really seen a shopping place anywhere else i have been thats so filled with families and children. Downtown, Old Strathcona, these are places for Adults. They are designed for them and make very few accommodations for children. The Mall to a child is a different experience. filled with bright colours, Amusement Parks, Waterparks, Games areas, Spray Fountains (if they still have them?) Recreation, Mini Golf (at least 3) and a vast number of stores with physical enticing childrens merchandise.
You never see this type of set up really anywhere else. none of the other malls in the city are as child friendly. none of the areas that are “hip” are enticing for that demographic (young families).
I honestly spend most of my recreation time in old strathcona. as a person with no kids, its great. but i can see why the area is made up of pretty much only young adults, and no children households both old and young)
Either way its a huge tourist center.. and while its sidewalks are terrible around it. and there are other issues.. its a net benefit to this city and maybe other areas can learn from its success and build on that.
We should be pushing for a better public realm that welcomes all and connects well with communities to our existing malls. Like it or not, the mall has provided many folks living around it with good transit, employment, and amenities within good walking or bus distance — something that power centres like South Edmonton Common cannot accomplish. Also, despite being a private space that does exclude people, the mall is perhaps one of the most multicultural spaces in the city.