The bridge carrying the M25 southwards into Kent juts up, like an awkward insect, beyond the dumpy dome and ready-made cornices of the Thurrock Lakeside shopping centre. The centre and the retail park next to it occupy about two million square feet. Three-and-a-half million people live within 30 minutes’ drive, and on a Saturday most of them seem to be trying to get into its car park.
Lakeside is a strange mixture of flashiness and plain grot. A “vertical feature” tells you the time and temperature as you drive along the M25. Then you turn off past the Essex Arena (for car racing) and the War Zone (for paintball games). A 20 acre lake offers windsurfing and an imitation Mississippi riverboat.
It is “Edge City”-the American term, not yet fully naturalised-come to Britain. Cities are gradually being turned inside out, with the most vigorous growth taking place at the edges. The US hasn’t built a traditional city centre since at least 1915. (By no coincidence, that was the year Henry Ford produced his millionth Model T.) The out-of-town shopping centre has taken urban dispersal one irreversible stage further. In the US, housing and offices grow up around the malls. One writer claims that two thirds of office space is now in Edge City, bolted on to a core shopping mall.
There are signs of this at Lakeside. Opened only six years ago, by Princess Alexandra, its magnetism already terrifies Oxford Street, where traders muse about the attraction of roofing their street over, and perhaps having their own security guards. Malls are mocked as a parody of a traditional city. But Jane Jacobs, heroine of the urban conservation movement, wrote that “the bedrock attribute of a successful city district is that a person must feel personally secure among all these strangers.” Enclosed and video-scrutinised, Edge City makes people, especially women, feel safe. No panhandlers here. No need to carry bags slung across your chest. One of the favourite gadgets is the glass-sided crawler lift. This is not because of the view out but because of the view in. Rape is unlikely in a glass box. In the US, the burgeoning of Edge City coincided with an upsurge in women taking jobs and acquiring cars. Ditto in Britain.
The new centres are different from the basic air-conditioned shopping mall. The first of these modest precursors opened in Milwaukee in 1956, a year after the first McDonalds. The first in Britain opened at Brent Cross, North London, 20 years ago. But today’s luxuriant, baroque centres are like mini-cities. Drive past the Meadowhall Centre outside Sheffield, and look down on its green dome in the old wasteland of the lower Don Valley. Apart from the shops, there are two office parks. Warner has opened an 11-screen multiplex cinema. Sheffield’s first supertram line runs from the old city centre to Meadowhall. Locally, high hopes for regeneration are placed on the “rippling-out” effect of Meadowhall.
Edge City is the child of the motorway. Slowly, and in spite of every protest, motorways are reconstructing urban life as fiercely as other transport systems did before them. Birmingham is where it is because of the canals. Swindon was created by the railways. If Warrington is one of the most flourishing northern towns (Liverpool can only look on in envy), it is because it has become the greatest motorway junction. Every distributor wants his warehouse here. It has no Lakeside-style shopping centre yet (though one is being built, in the teeth of the Environment Secretary’s objections, on the Warrington edge of Manchester). But Britain’s first Ikea store, another flower of motorway culture, germinated in Warrington.
Nobody planned that this should happen. When T Dan Smith, regional planning’s flawed hero, started to weave motorways around and through Newcastle, the Gateshead MetroCentre was no part of his vision. Britain’s first out-of-town shopping centre exploited a tax break intended to woo industry, not a retail heaven. It sometimes seems that the only people who like the centres are the millions of people who use them. Many of the complaints have the giveaway taint of snobbery-in direct line of descent from 1930s moans about vulgar supercinemas or 1950s moans about unsightly television aerials.
I love these centres. The first time I went into the MetroCentre, I had been travelling the grey streets of the north-east. If the alternative was Sunderland High Street or Peterlee, then the MetroCentre is where I would shop. In design the centres have as much in common with theme parks as with department stores: perhaps more. At the Metro you can leave your children while you shop, in a pick ‘n’ mix amusement zone like the late-lamented Fun House at Blackpool Pleasure Beach. Shoppers go about with cheerful, sprightly step. They have dressed up to come here.
On the upper floor there is a classical corner with Corinthian columns and statues in creamy fibreglass, and box trees made of plastic. A sign welcomes you to “Roman Shopping.” In architects’ drawings of their city schemes, you find little groups of tables with happy urbanites chatting under the sunshades. A bit like a tourist brochure. You seldom see this in Britain in real life. But you see it in the Roman Forum at the MetroCentre, where the electricity always shines. n