Yes, the shopping malls are packed this time of year. But hardly any are being built any more. And many of the existing malls are being demolished. The concept of the vast enclosed shopping space surrounded by a vast parking lot seems to be fading. In its place is the “town center,” the shopping area that is pedestrian friendly, open to the sky, and that combines shops, restaurants, movie theaters, and places to live. Architect Roger K. Lewis gives a good account of what happened:
After World War II, the enclosed regional shopping mall emerged because of two interdependent American phenomena: construction of the interstate highway system and rapid growth of low-density metropolitan suburbs.
Starting in the early 1950s, residents and many businesses fled cities, populating the expanding outer suburbs. Downtown department stores and smaller shops had ever fewer customers, but suburbanites still needed a place to shop, and the regional shopping center satisfied that need perfectly.
With affordable cars, cheap gas, a growing network of arterial roads and a seemingly endless supply of inexpensive land, the regional shopping mall was a logical invention. Equally logical was the real estate and mall design formula: acquire land with access to a major highway; assemble enough acreage to build a very large, weatherproof structure surrounded by parking lots; construct long concourses (often two levels high) lined on each side by scores of shops; and plug the ends of concourses with anchor department stores. To complete and enhance the formulaic picture, provide a food court, pump up concourse light levels, design enticing storefronts, pipe in music and pleasant scents, and install seasonal decorations, including Santa Claus.This formula proved extremely successful throughout America.
Today, however, middle-class flight from cities has ebbed. Adult children of the generations that inhabited post-war suburbia often choose not to stay in the the suburban settings where they grew up. Even their parents, tired of maintaining a house bigger than they now need, are heading back toward or into cities. Others (the young, middle-aged or elderly) are choosing to live in denser, walkable communities, where there is more to do and where shopping does not require driving several miles. This is one reason why town centers are being built, even in suburban locations, and why huge shopping malls are not.Traditional nuclear families (mother, father, two kids) are now less than half of all American households. Coupled with falling home values, mortgage foreclosures and unemployment, demographic reality is contributing to the depopulation of many suburban and exurban communities. A shopping mall cannot survive without population growth and customers who can afford to shop.
Also, for essentially aesthetic reasons, more people prefer not to shop in fading, older retail facilities that may be poorly maintained and perhaps half-empty. This suggests that Americans’ taste and appreciation of good architecture is improving.
What a concept. Diverse businesses arranged off sidewalks with people living upstairs. Sounds like downtowns.
But I do like the new town centers. There are some good ones around where we live. I’m curious how prevalent these are. Do you have some where you live? Are they an improvement over malls? Or are they basically the same things only without roofs?