As she eyes the colourful ice creams on offer at a Baskin-Robbins in one of Manila’s most luxurious shopping centres, Philippine teenager Jamie Gamboa admits to being an incurable mall rat—but not only for the shopping.
“It is the only place where you can just walk around without having to spend, and there are a lot of things to entertain us,” said the petite 16-year-old, surrounded by a gaggle of friends.
“We tried other places but it’s more of a hassle. In parks, there isn’t enough to do. A museum or a zoo isn’t a place you go to more than once.”
With their functions expanding from shopping and dining to venues for Catholic mass, Zumba workouts or even weddings, experts say malls are taking on a more important role at the heart of communities.
Filipino life traditionally revolved around a public square, with a church, local government building and market attached, where adults socialised and children played, according to urban planner Felino Palafox.
But while malls have long been a mainstay of urban Manila—the capital has at least 153 peppering its skyline—the neon-lit consumer temples are now sweeping across the Philippine archipelago, penetrating even rural areas.
“They have replaced the public plazas as gathering places,” Palafox said.
City lungs ‘lost’
As the Philippines’ population has boomed in recent decades, soaring from 68 million in 1995 to 100 million in 2015, creeping urbanization has magnified the appeal of malls to residents and businesses alike.
But this has come at the expense of green spaces, left languishing through neglect, short-sightedness and poor urban planning.
“We are losing the lungs of the city,” said Palafox.
Provincial grocer Wendy Tan remembers how she and her friends used to play in the sprawling, verdant plaza in Mambusao, a central Philippine town of about 38,000 people.
But as the park deteriorated over time, the locals searched for the next best thing—a spanking new, 300-hectare air-conditioned shopping mall in Roxas City, about an hour’s drive away.
“There are no more tall trees. No more fountains. There is no more shade so it is too hot,” she said.
So the mall developers stepped in, sometimes even leasing green spaces to build retail complexes.
“They know very well that the government is not delivering services so they address those. If the government does not create public spaces, they will build public spaces,” said Jorge Mojarro, a Spanish PhD student studying Philippine culture.
“It is not that Filipinos do not like parks. They are just not being offered parks,” he added.
But many Filipinos don’t seem to mind, seeing malls as safer than the streets—the crime rate remains high in Manila, despite police figures showing a fall nationwide—and a way to relax in cool surroundings.
Jacqueline Luis, a 48-year-old mother of three, says malls are a sanctuary for her family away from the tropical heat and traffic-choked thoroughfares of the urban metropolis.
“You can let them (kids) go to the amusement centre or watch a movie while you shop. And then you can all just meet up at the same place later,” she said.
Even the smallest towns are trying to attract malls.
Dean Villa, mayor of Larena, on the tiny island of Siquijor, has entered into a joint venture with a private firm to develop a mall in his community of about 13,000.
He hopes the new mall will attract people to spend money in his town — including local residents.
“Over here, as soon as pay-day comes, everyone hops on the ferry to Dumaguete City, about an hour’s ride away, because they already have a mall there,” he told AFP.
Not just shopping
As their steady march continues, malls are swallowing many of the services typically found in the public square.
Many boast chapels as well as child-care centers, allowing families in the devoutly Catholic nation to combine religious and family duties with shopping.
Satellite government offices in shopping centers allow Filipinos to pay utility bills and get documents such as voter ID cards, business permits, driver’s licenses and passports.
The election commission is even considering allowing voting in malls.
“We evolve to what is needed by the people,” said Alex Pomento, vice-president of the coun-try’s largest mall chain, SM Prime Holdings.
The group often hosts free community events in their malls such as mass weddings, school graduations, Zumba workouts and singing contests—events once held in town plazas.
The rise of Internet shopping does not worry the company, with four more of its malls set to open this year on top of the current 50.
“Our malls are destination places,” Pomento told AFP.
In an ironic twist, some larger malls are now literally replacing the lost parks by building expansive rooftop gardens to make them more attractive and in a nod to environmental concerns.
“Nowhere else in the world has a population so absorbed the shopping-mall lifestyle, Paul Santos, vice-president of the Philippine Retailers Association said.
“It’s not something you can stop.”