Using Urban Design Principles to Improve a Mall
Mable So in Retail, Retail Centers

Image © Gensler

I have always been an urban designer. It is my passion to design towns and cities and bring the right environment to people. But one morning in November 2008, my studio principal came to me with a new project: a retail center.

“A retail center? Really? Me? Why?”

The real question, as I would soon learn, was “why not?”

The project was The Avenues Kuwait, a shopping mall in Kuwait City that wanted to expand in a way that spoke to local customs. This was a mall that wanted to think of itself as a comprehensive environment or city. So the challenge of the project was not how do you plan a shopping destination; it was how do you plan a town from scratch while keeping in mind the old and new Kuwaiti lifestyles?

The approach my design team decided upon involved dividing the site into six distinct districts with each one presenting a unique cultural components from the various periods of Kuwait’s history.

Given the extreme climate in the Middle East, outdoor commercial districts along streets are not the preferred way to shop. Air conditioned shopping malls have long been the norm. But over the years, people from the Middle East have learned to love famed outdoor shopping areas in other parts of the world such as Oxford Street in London. The popularity of such destinations gave us a simple yet powerful idea: Could we design and outdoor shopping experience in Kuwait while taking all the benefits of an indoor environment? We set out to do just that.

We envisioned the finished redevelopment as a piece of cityscape. The new Avenues springs from a grand boulevard (which would later become the high street of Kuwait) and intersects a network of streets and plazas. We covered the street with an Ethylene tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE) roof that allows for maximum natural sunlight while simultaneously providing a high degree of solar protection and variable shading opportunities. The scheme takes advantage of the exceptional sunshine in Kuwait, giving the street a strong connection with the outdoors, while simultaneously maintaining an air conditioned environment all year round—a must for a country where summer time temperatures can exceed 120 degrees.

In order to create a shopping experience that could hold its own with famed international destinations such as Regent and Oxford Street of London, the Champs Elysees in Paris, and Michigan Avenue in Chicago , we carefully studied the width, proportion and character of each of these famous high streets. Our Managing Principal, Chris Johnson, supported the project with a “around the world trip.” Team members traveled to different cities (New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Milan, Seville, Paris, Istanbul and London) to get a better understanding of the elements that comprise cityscapes and shopping districts.

Though we were designing a retail center, we decided to produce several master plan options. In collaboration with our design architects and retail strategists, we created an urban shopping experience replete with a mix of architectural styles to reflect how Kuwait City has evolved over the years. In November 2012, the new phase of The Avenues opened; it quickly became the talk of the town.

The Avenues is built with an understanding of the local history and culture as well as a view of the future. That’s what makes it such a unique place. I felt privileged to be involved with the birth of a new shopping mall experience and took an important lesson away from the project: large scale retail centers can benefit from elements of urban planning. During my visit in June 2014, I was overwhelmed by the popularity of the development and the strong sense of place we have created. Its diversity provides something for every person who visits. I was inspired to see people using and enjoying the environment in the way that was designed for. To me, the best thing in the world is to be able to see smiling faces. It is a good measurement of success of a place too.

Image © Gensler

Mable's ambition in life is to be happy and to make other people happy too. She uses this energy in her urban planning career to create sustainable communities with a strong sense of place to improve people's lives. She has completed a number of large scale master plans in the Middle East and is now heading up the Planning & Urban Design group in the Abu Dhabi office. Contact her at
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