The UK’s retail parks were once the future. Now they look like drab relics of the past | Eddie Blake
Covid-19 and online shopping have put malls on the brink of extinction. But will we miss them when they’re gone?
As you cruise round the ring road at 50mph, they slide into view: huge square hulks with their supernaturally bright colours and 6ft lettering. Underappreciated and rarely discussed, commercial retail parks are a major part of the UK’s economic and social life. But now, amid a combination of long-term trends and the impact of coronavirus, they might be on their way out.
To understand why, we must understand why retail parks exist in the first place. The first was the Kalamazoo Mall in Texas, designed in 1959 by Viennese architect Victor Gruen. Envisioned as the ideal urban experience, it was intended as a way of capitalising on the popularity of the car. Gruen included more than shops in his proposals: he wanted medical centres, libraries, even apartments. The mall spawned so many derivations around the world – with the UK particularly keen – that in 1978 Gruen disavowed his creation, insisting: “I refuse to pay alimony for those bastard developments.”