This is a guest post by Ruchira Shah aka Ruchi aka Arduous.
I'm a recent transplant to London, and I had plans to check out the neighborhood around Ladbroke Grove. But as I sat riding the Tube, the rain started to pour down, and suddenly an afternoon of walking outdoors didn't seem like the best idea.
My phone rang.
"It's wet and miserable. Want to go to the mall instead? It's only a couple stops away."
And that is how I, a woman who spent a year not buying new stuff, ended up at Europe's largest mall on its opening weekend.
"I can't believe I'm going to a mall with Ms. Non-Consumer," said Raj.
"Yeah … well," I said.
We walked in and stared at the throngs of people milling around the enormous building.
I try hard not to judge. It doesn't do any good, and it turns people away from you. But, in that moment, as I watched swarms of people descend on a mall that is essentially identical to every other mall I've ever seen, during a financial crisis, no less, I couldn't help feeling a little judgmental and depressed.
"I guess everyone's forgotten about the recession," I said.
"But look … no one has shopping bags. No one's buying anything. They're just checking it out," Raj pointed out.
He was right. Here we were, at a mall--in Britain, no less--with thousands of other people, and yet, everyone seemed to be window shopping. And then it clicked. These people were here for the exact same reason I was here: because it was a rainy Saturday and they wanted to get out of the house.
I got even more depressed.
I want to ask, why, even in Western Europe, do we go to malls when we're feeling bored, or when it's raining? Why do we go to malls when we have no money to spend? Are malls really so much fun?
Because if all of you think that visiting a crowded mall and staring at unaffordable clothing is an excellent and incredibly fun way to spend the day, then I'll shut up. But if you're anything like Raj and me, maybe it's more like you're at a loss for other ideas.
What if we lived in a world with fewer malls, and more indoor parks, or children's museums or libraries? What if we flat out had more places for people to get out of the house, and just sit and relax and chat with their friends? What if we had more public space and less retail space?
Then maybe Raj and I wouldn't just wind up at a mall on a rainy Saturday. Maybe a mall would cease to be the easy and obvious choice. And maybe, and most importantly, maybe we'd have more fun.
The unfortunate truth, though, is that market economies are designed to cater to individual needs, but they don't work terribly well when it comes to things that benefit groups.
Left to itself, a free market will tend to under-produce thing such as public parks, libraries, and recreation centers. There is no market signal that says we need more benches on the sidewalks to hang out on.
So, if we want a world with public space that isn't devoted to retail, we have to get out there and make it happen. We need to tell our cities, our neighborhoods, our council members that we want fewer malls and more indoor parks.
We need to find a way where the needs of people power can overcome the insatiable profit needs of, say, Pottery Barn. Would fewer shopping malls be a sacrifice? Maybe for someone. But isn't living in a world with too few parks and libraries a greater sacrifice?
As for Raj and me, we escaped the mall after about twenty minutes. We decided that wandering rainy streets was the more enjoyable option. And the truth is--even without windows to shop--we had quite a good time.
Ruchira Shah aka Ruchi aka Arduous was just your average young woman with a severe addiction to cute purses and high-end kitchen tools she never used, when one fine day, she decided to quit buying anything new. For a year. After twelve months of personal environmental experiments, Ruchi felt like she wanted to make a larger positive impact, so she decided to back to school for a master's degree. You can find Ruchi regularly on the web at her personal blog, Arduous Blog. Ruchi lives, laughs, and actively procrastinates in London.