The Emerging Food Precinct: Five Design Considerations for Shopping Centre Developments

External dining zones or “food precincts” are an emerging trend within master planning retail design. The evolution of online shopping and home delivery has seen tough competition, and developers seek new offerings to retain the once loyal customer. Food precincts have become a popular solution that not only create visual interest and activate the high street, but also encourage customers to visit the shopping centre with the promise of a new experience. Here we discuss 5 essential considerations when planning these developments.

The concept of coming to one place to get everything is a growing trend. What used to be just a box to enclose a series of retail stores, has evolved into an entire development that includes retail, entertainment, fitness, health, beauty, dining and even community programs. Generally speaking, you can now go to a shopping centre complex and see your doctor for a check-up, get your morning workout at the gym, kill time watching a movie at the cinema, get your nails done, buy a new outfit, and then wear it when you catch up with friends for dinner later—all in the same place! In fact, you may not even need to go to the shopping centre at all (though chances are, while you’re there you’ll probably find a reason to).

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The great thing about creating precincts that include all of these components in one place is that they each draw in a different type of consumer, but encourage them to take advantage of the other amenities while they are there. A couple going to see a movie is likely to stop and have dinner if it’s conveniently located next door. That being said, each of these places is also completely independent and self-sufficient. The shopping centre may close at 6pm, but the cinemas and restaurants could stay open until midnight or later. The success of these precincts is that they are flexible in their offer. Much like the CBD within a city they have variety, convenience of proximity and diversity in design.

The role of the food precinct in this overall scheme is to create an area that connects the community with the sometimes obtrusive nature of the shopping centre. This additional layer between the two zones blurs the lines between public and private and helps infuse the mall with its surrounding context and streetscape, thus creating a more integrated structure overall. If designed well, the inclusion of this additional space should create a seamless transition for shoppers coming from home or work to a neutral space and ultimately ending inside the shopping centre. This extra component creates a relationship between socialising and shopping, making it more desirable.

With so many new and unique restaurants popping up on every corner, shoppers are demanding the same quality of design from a shopping centre food precinct as they do from their favourite 5 star eatery. Gone are the days of just grabbing a burger and some chips as you rush through the retail precinct. People expect more than just a food court hidden somewhere within the mall with cramped seating and the smell of grease. They want somewhere to meet with friends, take a break, re-energise and maybe get their kids out of their hair while they enjoy a gourmet sandwich and a coffee. Food precincts offer the unique experience of quick, convenient and casual dining with quality design, fresh air, sunshine and a relaxing environment— a little oasis within the shopping centre.

As architects and designers, our role is to plan these precincts in a way that will ultimately activate the shopping centre. i2C has developed a few key elements that should be considered during the planning stage.

Mall Access
The addition of a food precinct should encourage traffic into the shopping centre rather than hinder it. Though the intention is to influence people to walk through the space and entice them to stay, the main entry should still always be conveniently accessed. Provision should be made for walkways that bypass the seating areas and lead shoppers directly into the centre. Entrances should be clearly visible with adequate clearance in order for both dining patrons and customers to move safely from the car park to the shopping centre.

Food precincts and shopping centre entrances are co-dependent. On one hand, restaurants and external seating areas activate the zone near the entry and entice customers to come to the shopping centre. Equally important, mall entries generate a significant amount of traffic in themselves, making sitting outside more desirable for dining patrons. People like to be seen, especially if it’s at the new, trendy place-to-be!

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Mall entrances should entice patrons

Pedestrian Movement
Wayfinding is key. From a design point of view, there’s merit in creating pockets of seating with intimate zones, walkways and other unique design elements, but people still need to be able to navigate through it all to get to the ultimate destination- the shopping centre. The purpose of a food precinct is to draw attention, meaning it’s typically located just off the car park near an entry. When planning this type of area, it’s important to build space in for passage. Footpaths need to be clearly defined with adequate clearances, especially when situated among seating. The intention is to avoid confusion otherwise customers will become frustrated and be less likely to return, while ensuring the near by car park is concealed from those enjoying the dining experience.

Seating Zones
In order for this precinct to be activated and fulfil its purpose of bringing in customers, it needs to look lively and exciting. Crowds gather crowds, so if we want to create a buzz around the shopping centre, we need to ensure there is space to accommodate the patrons. Adequate seating zones need to be incorporated into the design to ensure customers are not only interested in walking through the area, but also have somewhere to sit and use it.

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Using a high level restaurant plan breakdown can assist in the planning stages of a semi controlled space. In very basic terms, a typical food tenancy would include a seating component and a kitchen component. A comfortable arrangement for a full-service restaurant would allow for approximately 1-1.4sqm of seating space per person (including circulation). In a quick-service scheme this number can be closer to 1sqm. The kitchen should be roughly one third the size of the seating area. Therefore, if the leasable space for a restaurant measures 120sqm in total, you should allow for approximately 30sqm of kitchen space and between 65-90 seats (90sqm), depending on the style of service provided. This will allow buffer for support areas such as the entry and amenities. Each tenancy will be different with varying requirements, but using this quick calculation as a rule of thumb will help with early stage planning.

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Secure Play Area
Children need to be considered. In addition to seating areas, food precincts need to be ‘kid-friendly’ as children often accompany their parents to shopping centres and restaurants. If this area is to be successful, a zone needs to be incorporated that allows kids to play while parents take a break and enjoy their meal. As the dining precinct and shopping centre have varying hours of operation, it is important that the kids’ area can be accessed at different times during the day and evening. The intention is for restaurants to function independently from the shopping centre, meaning they will be utilised outside mall hours as well. Adequate lighting and extra safety precautions should be considered in the design of this zone to ensure it’s used to its full potential at all times. Having this facility available to parents will make their visit to shopping centres and restaurants less stressful and more frequent.

There are many manufacturers that specialise in equipment for play areas therefore options are virtually limitless. They can vary in size, form, colour, and even incorporate themes that coordinate with surrounding structures. The overall design may differ from one shopping centre to another, however, there is some criteria that should remain consistent.

Safety should be the number one concern. This zone should be located centrally to as many seating areas as possible so children always remain visible to their parents or guardians. As play areas are situated within the food precinct that typically also places them in close proximity to a car park. It is crucial that this area is protected from any vehicles that may be passing by, either through landscaping and built barriers or the structure itself. Sun shading and wind screening will also need to be incorporated. That being said, there needs to be a balance between having enough separation to be safe and enough transparency to be visible.

Another important consideration should be trips and falls. According to Monash University Accident Research Centre, there is an estimated 120,000 children seeking medical care as a result of a playground injury of which 75% are related to falls. Equipment should be installed with a maximum fall height of 2.5m. In addition, impact- absorbing materials should be used on the ground, whether they are natural landscaping such as grass and sand or synthetic materials such as rubber. It is inevitable that accidents will happen, however a well-designed play area will take injury prevention into major consideration and minimise frequency and severity.

Along with safety, usability is another equally important factor. With most kids now owning some form of technology before they are even in preschool, it is important to encourage healthy, active play. An exceptional kids’ area will incorporate some form of exercise as the main activity. This can be achieved through the simple use of forms and obstacles over an expanse of space, much like a typical external playground. These elements should be solid and permanent to avoid unnecessary injuries and eliminate the ability of being removed from the site. The design also needs to take into account disabled access to allow children of all abilities to use the area.

Finally, as this area is part of a larger, overall scheme, its appearance must be considered. In addition to safety and usability, it needs to fit in with the design of the surrounding architecture and not become a visual obstruction. As the nature of this structure is that it plays a supporting role to the adjacent restaurants and shopping centre, it should not be the primary focus. The design should be functional, attractive and inviting, but not detract from other features.

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Play areas should be inviting and encourage activity

Green Space
The final component to a well-designed food precinct is green space. At the end of the day this area is meant to activate the exterior, therefore it should maintain the spirit of the outdoors. The addition of green space benefits the design in two ways. Firstly, on a practical level, it creates separation. The placement of planters and trees shouldn’t be random. These zones or divisions can be used to create designated seating areas for tenancies, making it clear for diners where they should sit and for staff members what areas they are responsible for. Green space could also be used as a buffer from the car park. As much as the food precinct creates interest and activates the high street, restaurant patrons probably don’t find it very exciting to look at a carpark. Something as simple as planting a few trees or incorporating some vertical landscaping could create enough separation to make customers feel comfortable and safe while still maintaining enough transparency for the area to be visible and generate interest.

In addition to creating boundaries and privacy, green space provides an atmosphere. Sitting within a sea of tables and chairs is what you would expect from a standard food court. If the purpose of a food precinct is to enhance the human experience for shoppers, then the atmosphere needs to reflect this concept. Adding planters and trees among seating areas transforms the routine activity of going to a shopping centre from being an errand or a chore to an enjoyable experience like going to the park. It’s all relative.

Food precinct plan encompasses seating, pedestrian wayfinding, access and green space

Final Thoughts
As the theory behind retail design evolves, shopping centres are becoming more than just a place to purchase everyday necessities. They are being designed as community hubs that offer everything from entertainment and dining to health and fitness, with shopping only a small portion of that experience. With people constantly on the go, external food precincts have become destination points – a purpose to go to the mall, and thus developed a critical role within the overall planning scheme. They draw the public in off the street and encourage customers already in the shopping centre to stay longer.

More and more developers are looking at how they can reconfigure their centres to accommodate this new trend and keep up with customers’ demands. From our perspective, it’s an opportunity to enhance the human experience and inspire others with good design that makes people happy.

View Mags’ profile here or email her to discuss your next project.

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Magdalena Uscinowicz 

Project Designer – Interiors