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

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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. 


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. 


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.

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



  1. I was looking forward to understanding WHY the shops don’t actually work….however the article just delivers a lot of Motherhood statements and generalities….

  2. The fact that the 2 main retailers are way up above street level(accessed by 2 very long/tall escalators) and are big box suburban style retailers that from the street, look uninviting and unfinished may have something to do with it. Marshalls and Bed/Bath/Beyond are hardly big draws for Yonge St. The connection to the ‘PATH’ system is almost non-existent and even the connection to the historic College Park is a series of fire doors with small signs. Horrid design, horrid concept. Who planned this?

  3. The shops at Aura is unsuccessful because the developer of this mall never wanted this mall to be successful since beginning. Canderel developer never put their mind and energy on how to make this place successful and busy retail mall, all their intention and energy are used to figure out how to squeeze out the last penny of their victims, most owners are losing money everyday until this day. Believe or not, this pervert developer still claims that their retail owner victims still owe them money. That’s not yet, this mafia developer has agenda to take back all retail units from these poor owners whom paid lots of money for free.

  4. Might want to start with a mall directory…the developers are a total scam! Even when i go to the shops at aura website, it just links me to the dumb condos. How on earth has this not been updated!?!

  5. I am of Asian descent and when I asked the security guard if Bed Bath & Beyond was open he said no but I should check out China town. I felt that was extremely offensive and there is no where to leave this comment except an external website.


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