What if your local shopping mall became a leafy sanctuary?

Let’s bring the outdoors inside

People wearing face masks use their phones while at a shopping mall in Shanghai on June 16, 2020. - China reported another 27 domestically transmitted coronavirus cases in Beijing, where a fresh cluster linked to a wholesale food market has sparked WHO concern and prompted a huge trace-and-test programme. (Photo by Hector RETAMAL / AFP)
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During the UAE’s summer months, stepping outside in the day is a no-go for most people. With temperatures inching north of 40°C, staying indoors becomes the norm. For recreational activities then, the mall is an obvious choice, especially since the UAE has some of the largest and most beautiful malls. The mall is important not just because people enjoy shopping, but because people like people.

Social spaces are what make great cities great. Consider, for example, Covent Garden in London or La Rambla in Barcelona. It is the public places, the parks, the plazas, that give a city a sense of vitality and vibrancy. The mall can offer the same function – exposure to vibrant diversity and the opportunity for serendipitous interaction. These privately owned public spaces can contribute greatly to our social well-being.

Take the Yas Mall indoor run. Organised by Abu Dhabi Sports Council, this is an event in which participants can walk or run the 10-kilometre indoor course around the mall. This all takes place before the shops open. A track is marked through the mall and participants, several hundred of them, run and walk, laugh and joke. Such large events have been shelved during the pandemic, but you still see many people using the mall, simply as a place to exercise. In the winter we walk in the park, in the summer we walk in the mall.

Perhaps in the post-Covid-19 world, such mall-based events could be held more regularly. Malls might even seek new ways to further enhance their capacity and capability for social good.

Newly built Changi Jewel complex at the Changi international airport is pictured during a media preview in Singapore on April 11, 2019. (Photo by Roslan RAHMAN / AFP)

If malls became green spaces it would have a big affect on population-level well-being. A walk through the mall could become like a walk through a leafy park.

Over the past few decades, research has repeatedly shown the positive affect of parks, gardens and forests. The evidence is solid: access to green spaces is associated with a host of benefits, including better mental health, improved brain development in children, and reduced risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes. Based on such evidence, the World Health Organisation and the UN have developed policy frameworks and guidance aimed to promote the increased provision of green space for population health.

Like malls offer a "playing area" for children, the indoor park could perhaps offer a small shopping area for adults

If our malls became greener and abundant in the number and variety of plants that they contain, they would improve the health and well-being of regular visitors. Perhaps soon some of us might even select the malls we visit based on the richness and diversity of the greenery there.

However, moving beyond the mall, we might also consider developing indoor public parks, leisure locations that are rich in biodiversity. This could be an indoor public space and so all of the commercial considerations associated with the mall can be moved to one side. As a public space, it would be free and open to all. And being indoors, it could be enjoyed all year round.

These proposed indoor parks could be developed keeping in mind the safety, development and emotional well-being of children. A place rich in plant life would be ideal for children to safely learn to ride a bike, shoot a hoop or for the family to have a picnic. It could be a place where people can be together without the distraction of retail. In the same way, malls offer a “playing area” for children, the indoor park could perhaps offer a small shopping area for adults.

The technology to host such indoor biodiversity has been around for a while and is perhaps most spectacularly showcased in Seattle, in the Amazon Spheres. These three spherical conservatories at the Amazon headquarters house 40 thousand plants from 50 countries (400 different species), with the whole space primarily used as a lounge for Amazon employees. If we want our employees to thrive, green their spaces. If we want our children to thrive, green their spaces too.

Our proximity to nature helps us thrive. The benefits in early childhood are especially noteworthy. A summary of the research published in 2020 in Reviews on Environmental Health found that increase in green space during pregnancy was associated with healthier birth weights. Furthermore, greater exposure to greenery during early childhood was associated with increased physical activity, lower risk of obesity and fewer respiratory problems and neurodevelopmental issues.

No one yet knows for sure exactly why greenery is so good for us. Future research will, no doubt, shed light on this. In the meantime, though, let’s start bringing more of the outdoors indoors, especially during the summer.

Justin Thomas is a professor of psychology at Zayed University and a columnist for The National

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Newly built Changi Jewel complex at the Changi international airport is pictured during a media preview in Singapore on April 11, 2019. (Photo by Roslan RAHMAN / AFP)