Why The Shops at Aura Retail Centre is Unsuccessful (With Photos)

Earlier this month, the National Post newspaper published a blistering opinion piece, referring to Toronto's 'The Shops at Aura' as being “desolate”, among other criticisms. We asked retail design firm figure3 to shed some light on why and what could have been done differently.

The following is a retail design analysis by figure3's Tyler Gilchrist, who is head of Strategy and Research at the well-known Toronto-based design firm.

By Tyler Gilchrist

As you can imagine, designing retail environments has changed a bit in the last few years. The role of bricks and mortar is evolving, no doubt. They both need to do something different than what they used to, and what their new virtual counterparts do. 

One thing that hasn’t changed is the need for real-world social interaction with all the nuance and value it entails. Regardless of the leaps new technologies have made in recent years; people remain physical, sensation-seeking, and social animals. Though we often believe we’re a special kind of rational decision-making animal, in the real-world we predominantly rely on unconscious cognitive biases and social signals that are tied to our own evolutionary beginnings. 

(Click Google map for interactive version) 

(Click Google map for interactive version) 

(Ground level entrance to the Shops at Aura, accessed from an escalator.)

(Ground level entrance to the Shops at Aura, accessed from an escalator.)

(Wayfinding directory on a wall in the centre)

(Wayfinding directory on a wall in the centre)

How we think, feel, decide and behave is very much influenced – again, mostly unconsciously – by the environments we find ourselves in and the complex network of social clues that reside within them. What this means is designers, and the developers directing them often fail to create environments that work because they lack a meaningful understanding of the many invisible influences that effect the people they design for. 

Take the Shops at Aura in Toronto. The National Post recently ran an article about just how dismal retail developments can be for people. You can read others’ point of view here and here…you get the point. We can all agree that these shops aren’t doing what they should. The Shops at Aura don’t work. 

(Food court, empty of tenants. There's no free wi-fi for patrons, either)

(Food court, empty of tenants. There's no free wi-fi for patrons, either)

There are many obvious reasons The Shops don’t work. They lack a big retail “anchor”, they’re missing their promised connection to the PATH, they were sold as “retail condos” (and how that model skews the system), and the simple fact that most of The Shops reside in a dingy basement. But there’s more to creating dynamic, effective retail environments for people than simply overcoming the conventional complaints. 

To design effectively for people you have to understand people. It doesn’t appear The Shops at Aura were designed with a deep understanding of what people need for retail to thrive. 

Our contribution to furthering this understanding is a series of seven principles we’ve identified that begin to reframe what’s important to retail projects like The Shops. Based on empirical observation, as well as research that leverage the cognitive and behavioural sciences, these principles are one of the tools we use to look at retail design decisions through a people-first lens. 

For instance, our “Open & Social” principle is all about putting ideal retail behaviours on display (leveraging the idea of ‘social proof’, where we make visible specific activities in order to give others something to emulate). It’s a simple idea that can be leveraged easily and inexpensively – when thought of at the right time. But it’s something that’s ignored by too many retailers and retail projects like The Shops. When we overlook these simple principles, we design places that suck the life out of what should be vibrant, buzzing places.

(Limited hours for an existing retailer) 

(Limited hours for an existing retailer) 

These principles for convivial retail go further than simple design decisions into other areas, like leasing strategies. As Charles Montgomery states in his book on urban design “Happy City”: 

“In the 1980s most large cities in [Denmark] actually restricted banks from opening new branches on their main shopping streets. It is not that Danes hate banks; it is that passive bank facades bleed life from the sidewalk, and too many of them can kill a street.” 

… Now guess what type of tenant occupies more than half the Yonge Street frontage at The Shops? Robbing street level energy and visible sociability makes it too hard for anyone to intuit there’s anything worth exploring at the north-west corner of Yonge and Gerrard. 

These principles are a good start. They’re small, effective nudges toward reframing the design process. We’d like to take things a step further. To design places that work for people, we have to engage those people in meaningful ways, before anyone begins designing. We have to overcome the mentality that permeates much of the design and development community that assumes you can just inflict meaningful experiences onto people. Real-world design doesn’t work this way - you can’t design experiences. You can only create the conditions to trigger meaningful experiences based on what people bring to your design. 

Just because you built it, doesn’t mean they’ll come. 

Author: Tyler Gilchrist, Strategy and Research, figure3