Montreal is definitely a winter city, especially on a day like today. While roads are difficult to navigate by car, and even more on foot, people have somehow managed to dig themselves out and make it to the local shopping centre (I got stuck here en route to the bus that would bring me to work).
Shopping centres are criticized for promulgating consumerism, for being auto-centric and for being located far from dense urban centres – and rightly so. Most have sprawling parking lots, used to capacity only during the days leading up to Christmas. They are not built on a human scale and are usually difficult to get to by other means than a car. However, somehow I spent a considerable amount of time in them growing up. It probably helped that I grew up less than 10 minutes by foot from the local shopping centre. It was a place I went to with friends during the winter months to shop (yes), but mostly to talk, to eat and to be around other people. To be sure, this is not the ideal place to spend one’s time, but many suburban youth (and others) spend time in malls. Why?
Yes, we shop. But shopping malls are also unique in that they are an indoor public space, free to use. Granted, they exist for shopping and most people do make purchases, but during the winter months when parks and public plazas are far less attractive, shopping malls are among cafés and bars as places where one can be in public, but indoors. It is possible to sit, get a coffee, window shop and meet up with friends and family, outside the home, sheltered from the elements.
While the death of shopping malls looms, it is interesting to think of the shopping mall as more than a place where people spend money, but also as a kind of meeting place.