Giant malls replacing old plazas
Christmas shopping often reminds Brigette Tan Villarin that her husband, Megamobile managing partner Aristotle “Aris” Villarin, was a homebody before they started dating a few years ago.
Aris said life was “boring” until his wife started taking him along to the malls. Malling has now become a weekend habit for the couple, their 2-year -old daughter, and Brigette’s mother. And when there’s time for just the two of them, they go on dates—in the mall.
“We’re five minutes away from Power Plant Mall so it’s really convenient,” Brigette tells the Inquirer. “My mother comes with us, too, and feels comfortable with the mall’s air-conditioning.”
The Villarins are among the hundreds of thousands of families who spend their weekends inside malls around the country. Their numbers swell during the holidays.
One can do nearly everything in the mall: eat, pray, shop, play, watch movies. One can also go banking, apply for a passport, pay their bills, renew their driver’s license, obtain birth certificates and other civil registry documents, and get an NBI clearance, at no extra cost—thanks to an arrangement between mall owners and different agencies.
The advertising blurb of the country’s biggest mall operator sums up what these giant shopping centers offer: “We got it all for you!”
The mall phenomenon
Cultural anthropology professor Nestor Castro of the University of the Philippines sees malls as replacing the purpose and function of public plazas of yore.
The “plaza complex” introduced by Spanish colonizers makes every centralized space accessible, attractive and functional, said Castro. Filipinos used to spend their weekends strolling around town plazas where they also meet friends, grab a bite or pray in the nearby church.
“But now, because of pollution and traffic, malls have replaced them,” Castro said.
Antton Nordberg, head of research at property consulting firm KMC Savills, noted that Philippine malls have become “leisure destinations” for Filipinos, unlike in Singapore or New York where they are frequented mainly by shoppers.
Nordberg, from Finland, is a competitive ice hockey player who currently coaches the Philippine national ice hockey team. The team practices at Mall of Asia’s ice skating rink.
That the Philippines has a national ice hockey team and can produce a globally competitive figure ice skater like Michael Christian Martinez shows how malls have become a new element in modern Filipino culture.
Malling has become a family activity in many of the country’s rising urban areas where malls provide a secure and comfortable place to socialize, said Castro.
But malls also reinforce certain limits on socialization, restricting it to people already known to us like relatives and friends, because the commercial atmosphere provides “a sense of anonymity” where people prefer to mind their own business.
The expansion of malls is proof that we are being engulfed by a “consumerist culture,” said Castro.
“You see in the mall the spirit of Christmas, the value of gift giving, but all under the trappings of a commercial setting. If you don’t have money, then I’m sorry,” he added.
Malls have also generated new problems for the community, such as traffic congestion and the loss of some of the cities’ heritage sites which are demolished to make way for yet another shopping complex.
Architect, urban planner, and environmentalist Felino “Jun” Palafox believes huge shopping malls should not be situated inside the metro because they are magnets for vehicular traffic. He cites a guideline from the Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit research institute focused on land use to enhance the environment, which states that the best global practice is to situate large shopping malls not less than nine kilometers from each other.
It seems mall developers didn’t get the memo, and so the sprawling Megamall is just a stone’s throw away from Shangri-La Plaza and Robinson’s Galleria, about 2.5 kilometers from the Greenhills Shopping Center and 5.5 kilometers from the Eastwood malls in Libis, Quezon City.
Palafox, who planned the Rockwell complex in Makati and the Cebu Business District, noted that urban planning mistakes in Metro Manila are being replicated in other parts of the country, citing as an example the recent rise of a mall at the center of Zamboanga City.
But mall-goers can’t be blamed for preferring these shopping centers over parks and plazas, said Castro.
Castro said public spaces have become the hangout of unsavory characters like pimps, prostitutes, drug users and bums. Even in high-end places like the Burgos Circle in Taguig, women and transvestites move around peddling sexual services.
Palafox said shoppers would prefer to go to a place that is “most complete, a place with variety of goods and services.”
“Because we don’t have safe, clean (and) convenient open spaces and parks, the malls have now become park and playground, the social interaction area. It became a place to shop, dine, worship and get health care,” Palafox said.
A few large public spaces like the Rizal Park, or Luneta, and the Quezon City Memorial Circle, which are well-maintained, continue to attract many families during weekends.
Every Sunday, Janine Tuazon takes the jeepney from Tondo, Manila, with her friends and siblings to Rizal Park where they hang out, play and watch the evening fountain show.
“We prefer going to Luneta than the malls because there is nothing for us to do there since we don’t have money. The security guards will shoo you away even if you just want to check out what’s on sale. At least here, we’re able to do a lot of stuff,” Tuazon said.
On a recent Sunday evening, she and her friends bought some balloons and spread out a large mat where they shared some snacks with other families.
One of them was Mark Quigaman’s family. The Taguig resident brought along his wife, their 3-year-old daughter, two nephews and his mother to the Luneta for a picnic. He said he’d rather take his family to Luneta on Sundays than to High Street in upscale Bonifacio Global City near his home. At the Luneta, the children can play without worrying about breaking things, unlike in malls, he said.
Palafox said one way of dealing with the traffic problem caused by malls was to disperse shopping and leisure areas and make communities self-contained.
“We need to balance and decentralize,” he said. “Inside the neighborhood, we should have a neighborhood center, a shopping center, a community center, a district center, a town center and then regional centers. It’s distribution. I think Metro Manila is no longer sustainable.”
Castro believes there is a need for local governments to take part in preserving and repurposing existing public places. Like education, heritage sites have to keep up with the times, he said. As traditional teaching methods need to compete with the internet as sources of information, so do parks and plazas have to compete with the convenience offered by malls.
Public places can still be transformed into heritage sites to highlight a city’s history, cuisine and tradition, he said.
As plans to turn the pre-World War II Rizal Memorial Stadium into another shopping mall goes underway, Castro hopes that like the Tutuban Mall in Divisoria, where the facade of the old railway station was preserved, the memories enshrined at the art deco-styled Rizal Stadium would not be lost. —EDITED BY OLIVER TEVES WITH A REPORT FROM BERNADETTE D. NICOLAS AND DORIS DUMLAO-ABADILLA