Placetest Liverpool One: In this exclusive study, anthropologist Rebecca Toop explores the user experience of Liverpool’s outdoor shopping district, which opened in 2008, with photography by Andrew McCaren
If Western culture is often called consumerist, there is more to shopping than consumption. Shopping outlets provide a stage for people to explore ideas about their identity, all while buying into the sense of being in a community that these spaces can provide.
Developed by Grosvenor, Liverpool One is one of Europe’s biggest city-centre mixed-use developments at 42 acres and the very name suggests that it belongs to Liverpool (“You know it’s Liverpool’s!”). It opened in 2008 and it is widely acknowledged that Liverpool City Council’s partnership approach to the development of Liverpool One is a tale of success.
As one visitor says: “To me, it’s not a retail park. A retail park is like you’re in a shopping mall in America. You drive in and then you drive out. With this, it’s the heart. It’s now to me the heart of the city.”
Scores of Liverpudlians who used to travel to Manchester’s Trafford Centre for their retail fix welcomed the development in the city centre, most of which opened during Liverpool’s year as European Capital of Culture.
Estimated to have cost £920m, it has since acted as a catalyst for a wider renaissance of the city, being developed around its architectural heritage and existing street layout. It stitches into the fabric of the city, which means there is very little sense of other streets or shopping areas being cut off and so forgotten about.
Bookended by flagship stores Debenhams and John Lewis, which are said to draw the public into the space, the site has a flow, with people constantly on the move, albeit at a leisurely stroll. “In London, everyone is rushing everywhere, but here it’s very chilled, slow, easy. It’s a more enjoyable experience than London for sure.”
“To me, it’s not a retail park. A retail park is like you’re in a shopping mall in America.... To me it’s the heart of the city”
The significance of the site in Liverpool’s history cannot be underestimated – it sits on top of the world’s first commercial wet dock, the place that gave Liverpool its name and enabled it to become the first global city. The Old Dock has been buried underground since 1826 and was only excavated when Liverpool One was being built. It remains under the site, with a small area allocated to the museum tour run by the Merseyside Maritime Museum.
Nods to the site’s significance are built into the architecture. Thomas Steers Way is named after the engineer who built the Old Dock, and hosts a water feature the circular pool of which represents the ‘liver’ (muddy) pool. The fountains that come on in the summertime outside the Hilton celebrate the achievements of William Hutchinson, dock master at the Old Dock from 1759, who recorded high tide and low tide every day for nearly 30 years.
Other prominent reminders of the area’s historical significance are found at a boundary position to the site, next to John Lewis: a replica golden eagle, once a prominent signpost to many illiterate seafarers, adorning the site of the world’s first American consulate (the original is in the Liverpool Museum); and the ornately sculpted gate to the old Liverpool Sailors’ Home (demolished in 1974) has been placed more or less in its original position. As one person remarked, “People really appreciate Grosvenor’s attempt to mention the tradition of the site.”
Merseymade, an artist’s studio, gallery and cafe situated just next to Liverpool One’s bus station, benefits from the footfall of those parking nearby to avoid the £11.50 four-hour parking fee in Liverpool One. Vicky Gawith, owner of Merseymade, has a personal relationship to the building that they inhabit – her father used to work for its previous iteration, the Gordon Smith Institute for Seamen. Given the area’s rich history, it would be great to see more Liverpudlians given the opportunity to reconnect with their heritage in this way.
While Liverpool One is home to all the big global brands, they are presented in a framework that speaks to the local – even the name, Liverpool One, implies being ‘for Liverpool’. The site offers the usual range of mid to high-end stores, bars and restaurants, a cinema complex and an indoor crazy golf course (Junkyard Golf Club). But it caters particularly well to Liverpool’s obsession with sports fashion, with numerous sports shops including, of course, the Liverpool FC Store and ‘Everton Two’. The more upmarket areas of the site are differentiated in the architecture, with black gloss walls framing the entrance and a covered avenue housing glass-fronted high-end shops, such as the Nespresso ‘concept boutique’.
The site also holds accessible large-scale events and has family-friendly augmented reality apps – Dinosaurs Unleashed and Zombies Unleashed – that turn the shopping centre into a theatre space with participants as actors.
“People really appreciate Grosvenor’s attempt to mention the tradition of the site”
The open street layout means you can wander and explore, without it feeling overly scripted – unlike in a more traditional mall where you walk from one end to the other. There is a sense of there being more to discover, up a side street or around the corner. Thanks to the open-air design, light filters down to the bottom level found in South John Street, but you would not realise that above you is an amphitheatre of restaurants and a ‘park in the sky’.
Not all visitors appreciate the open air – as one Norwegian tourist remarked: “It’s strange that they made the shopping centre outside, with all the bad weather. It should be inside.” But it does appear to give visitors a greater sense of ownership of the space: “I would consider all of this to be public space, to be honest… because we all walk through it like it’s just outdoors.”
Another visitor remarked: “I went to Liverpool One on the day it opened because I work in the city centre. A couple of us went down. We couldn’t wait to go, all excited, and that was the thing we said. It’s like, ‘Well, this will never catch on. The roof doesn’t go right across.’ We were so wrong, obviously, because you don’t think twice about it. I think it makes it more airy, I guess. I don’t know. Welcoming. But I can remember us all laughing as if like, ‘Oh, they must have run out of money’ and things. But it was obviously the design.”
There are benches, but these are sporadically placed and come across as utilitarian – somewhere to rest between shops or wait for your partner, rather than relaxing places for people to spend time. On the other hand, Chavasse Park and the Sugar House steps (a nod to Liverpool’s historical role in the global sugar industry) are obvious meeting places and somewhere for people to “have their sandwiches in the summertime”.
Chavasse Park is one of the few places in which you can stay in Liverpool One without spending money and fulfils a need for open green space in the city centre. Located between the old docks, the Cavern Quarter (think The Beatles) and the Ropewalks (the creative quarter and host to Chinatown), Liverpool One is an ideal location for a central meeting place.
“That’s something that Liverpool lacks – a centre,” says one visitor. “There’s no central square – well, there’s Concert Square, which is dreadful – but there’s no square that people can sort of chill out in. Up at the top there [Chavasse Park] is all right but it’s a bit blowy.”
Very few of the visitors I spoke to could accurately tell me the extent of the site
Dinosaurs Unleashed encouraged you to find dinosaur eggs around the site, hatch them, feed them and fight them in a battle arena in Chavasse Park. Launched to coincide with the Easter holidays last year, the app was well-publicised and ‘Chavassic Park’ was given an overhaul, with uniformed park rangers creating a buzzing atmosphere. Initiatives such as this and Zombies Unleashed dissociate the space from being a shopping centre, enabling people to have a formative experience and develop a personal connection to the space.
One visitor said, “When [the kids] were younger we used to come up here [to Chavasse Park] all the time… They used to have events, like little concerts for kids and things.” She now regularly comes with her son, who looks to be in his early teens, and they get milkshakes and sit in the sun when the weather is nice.
The lack of clear boundaries to the site and toned down on-site branding further lead to the sense that Liverpool One is ‘for the people’. Very few of the visitors I spoke to could accurately tell me the extent of the site, with many thinking it was just South John Street, bookended by John Lewis and Debenhams, and extending out to Paradise Street.
But there are none of the usual signs of citizen appropriation around the site, whereas just outside at the docks, people have quite literally made their mark – locking padlocks with names and messages to the railings. Also not found on the site are forms of political messaging (“Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism!” seen on nearby Church Street) or protests (PETA’s ‘no fur’ campaigns outside Flannels), which are swiftly moved on – if you wish to stage a protest on the site, you have to apply in advance.
Liverpool One’s proximity to the city’s cultural quarter (huge vinyl adverts around the site state ‘So close… five minutes away’) has enabled a connection to the city’s museums. Dinosaurs Unleashed signposted users to the World Museum’s dinosaur exhibit, and National Museums Liverpool was involved in the interpretation of the Old Dock under Liverpool One. It “brings it all to life” and still runs the guided tours to it.
The Museum of Liverpool’s Chris Kerfoot says: “In my eyes, we are all in this together with this element of tourism, an element of celebrating our city. Sunday morning is their day of culture, their day to find out things about the city. It’s relaxing. It’s quiet.” Liverpool One’s shops don’t open until 11am on a Sunday.
But there is a not-insignificant physical barrier between the museums on the docks and Liverpool One – the Strand, an eight-lane A-road. Although well served with pedestrian crossings, the demolition of the pedestrian bridge in 2007 has left many people intimidated by this busy road, with accidents not uncommon.
There are none of the usual signs of citizen appropriation around the site
One visitor says: “When there are big events on in the city like the Giants [a parade of huge marionettes], they close that road. And again, that makes it a whole.”
There is competition for Liverpool One from areas of local, independent shops such as Bold Street, which has a vibrancy and a sense of life being lived that is lacking in Liverpool One. “I’d prefer to eat elsewhere. A lot of these [restaurants] are chains – I prefer smaller places. We usually eat at Bold Street,” a visitor tells me.
The proliferation of well-known brands and chains at Liverpool One means that Grosvenor has to work harder for people to feel they are gaining a unique experience on the site. This is achieved through different means: non-retail elements such as events and apps; pop-up shops (the ‘Barbie Store Fashion Pop Up’ was a particular favourite for shoppers); and, of course, the open-air street layout.
One of the biggest successes of the development is to have made Liverpool One feel like it belongs to the locals – something of which Liverpudlians can be proud of. Grosvenor has tried to tone down its presence as an external developer by using limited on-site branding and unclear boundaries to the site. This gives a sense of any added atmosphere created in the space being a public service as opposed to a PR stunt. It supports local charities, such as Claire House Children’s Hospice, has a ‘One Community Stand’ that raises awareness of different causes, and the Liverpool One Foundation, which has donated more than £1.5m to community projects that “promote positive mental health and well-being amongst our city’s young people”. This ethos of keeping it local has obviously rubbed off on even the big global brands, with Adidas-branded cupcakes actively promoting a local bakery.
To compete with the rise of online shopping, the power of aligning with the local isn’t to be underestimated. People want to feel like they are buying into something bigger, and gaining something more for their money than items as commodities.
Physical shops currently have the advantage over online shops (although this may change with advancements in augmented and virtual reality, as well as the enduring legacy of COVID-19), as they provide a stage for the theatrical act of shopping – the ability for people to try on outfits and explore different ways of expressing themselves. Purchases are inscribed with meaning, whether that’s improving your home sanctuary, constructing images of the ideal husband or child, or developing your concept of ‘self’ and self-image – shopping is almost always linked to social relationships and is therefore easier to express in a social, public setting. Given the sociable nature of shopping for many people, the employee discount offered across the site means that friends and family of staff will be encouraged to shop here.
Liverpool One is not immune to the decline of the high street, with the closing of shops a worry for many people who frequent the space: “The thing that concerns me with Liverpool One is that for whatever reason, the shops seem to be closing or changing hands. And that’s probably because of the way of the world at the moment, because lots of places are struggling. The one that concerns me is the flagship store of Debenhams on the corner. And they’re struggling, aren’t they? And if that closes down, who will take over that massive space?”
Physical shops provide a stage for the theatrical act of shopping – the ability for people to try on outfits and explore different ways of expressing themselves
When I was undertaking the research for this article, it was still the old normal: people were out shopping with their families, meeting friends for drinks and wandering into the city centre after football matches. But at the time of writing, the shopping centre looks vastly different – most inessential stores are closed and Liverpool One is deserted.
Yet Liverpool One has maintained an active presence online during the lockdown. It has adapted Dinosaurs Unleashed to enable you to set up dinosaur hunts in your own home. Now online, the ‘Tickle the Ivories’ project, currently in its tenth year, provides pianos throughout Liverpool One and encourages passers-by to play them – videos of which have been known to go viral – and invites buskers to submit videos. Material on the MyONE app has changed from restaurant deals and giveaways to ‘things to do at home’ – word searches and recipes predominantly.
It will be interesting to see how Liverpool One emerges from the COVID-19 crisis and whether there will be any closing down sales for businesses that haven’t made it through the lockdown. Several big stores have already announced plans for social distancing for when shops reopen. In the event that any future vaccine is seasonal, shopping centres will come under scrutiny for the level of hygiene they can maintain to keep their customers safe. But its open-air design might have a positive impact on people’s perceptions regarding the spread of the virus in Liverpool One.
Grosvenor is obviously keen to maintain the community it has tried so hard to build up. With governance over the whole site, it may be in a stronger position than individual businesses on a high street to keep the retail park alive after this crisis.
Site area: 42.5 acres
Total development: 2.5 million sq ft
Retail: 1.65 million sq ft
Leisure: 230,000 sq ft
Open space: 5.5 acres
John Lewis: 240,000 sq ft
Debenhams: 185,000 sq ft
Liverpool ONE was delivered by The Paradise Project, the development vehicle created by Grosvenor and its investment partners.
Liverpool City Council selected Grosvenor as the ‘preferred developer’ in March 2000. It was also a key investor in the project, and along with a consortium of other investors, has raised the full cost of the development works. The consortium includes investors Hermes, Redevco and Liverpool Victoria, and banks RBS, Barclays, HSBC and Eurohypo.
Building Design Partnership: masterplanners
Capita Symonds: transportation engineers and health and safety consultants
Cesar Pelli Associates: urban design consultants
Waterman Partnership: structural and environmental engineers
WSP Group: infrastructure and building services engineers
Laing O’Rourke: site and design
co-ordination and principal contractor property/planning consultants
DTZ: advisors to Grosvenor Liverpool Fund
Drivers Jonas: planning consultants
Cushman & Wakefield, Strutt & Parker and Tushingham Moore: leasing agents
Edmund Kirby: party wall and rights of light surveyor
Cost consultants: Davis Langdon: quantity surveyor
Lawyers: Berwin Leighton Paisner and Boodle Hatfield: solicitors; Denton Wilde Sapte: planning lawyers