Malls For Community Development: Past, Present, and Possibilities

By Wynnie Gross — CultureHouse Intern, Spring 2021

Since their conception in the 1950s, Malls have been closely linked to the development of American consumerism and modern culture. But malls are dying. The COVID-19 pandemic only accelerated a demise that was underway. Malls are closing at a rapid rate, leaving towns and cities with a consequential question — What should mall space be used for now?

As CultureHouse, an organization that, “improves livability in local communities by transforming unused spaces into vibrant social infrastructure,” we are interested in ways that mall spaces can be used for community oriented development. Whether it be a gathering space or an indoor playground, unused mall spaces provide a unique opportunity to enhance communities and provide them with new resources. But, in using this space, it is necessary to understand the context in which malls were developed and their historical impact on communities around the country.

Past

In the 1700s through the 1800s, retail stores were commonly found in the form of “mom and pop stores,” which is a colloquial phrase used for small, family-owned, independent businesses. In the mid-1800s, department stores began to form, which ultimately changed the relationship of retail to American culture, making it a bigger piece of regular American life. In the 1920s, store credit was introduced, making shopping even more accessible to Americans. By the 1950s, malls were introduced in the United States, which ultimately changed the face of retail forever.

With this rise of retail in America, population trends were changing as well. Malls developed where and when they did as a result of suburbanization. Downtown areas had been previously populated with locally owned shops and businesses lining Main Streets. Redlining practices used in cities to segregate neighborhoods, the development of the suburb, and subsequent white flight pushed economic activity away from these downtown areas into suburban neighborhoods. With this movement, the nature of the retail market significantly changed.

Austrian-born Architect Victor Gruen was one of the early developers of the mall concept. He had a vision of the American mall that was influenced by European urban design plans in city squares. Gruen thought that by bringing these ideas to American suburbs, malls could become mini-urban centers within suburban environments that influenced both commercial and community development. Gruen had thought that malls would serve as a third-space for adults and youth, fostering a sense of community and a “climate-controlled Main Street.” He saw shopping as a cultural experience and stores as community gathering spaces. But, in the end, Gruen’s vision had other consequences.

When malls first developed, they decimated downtown shopping centers. And as such, malls destroyed the economic livelihood of more urban areas. Victor Gruen himself declared that he no longer wanted to be considered the father of the American mall because he was disgusted at what they had become, saying that they “destroyed our cities.” Presently, this trend has changed. We see vacant storefronts and unpacked parking lots as malls are closing at rapid rates. Many people fear that malls will begin turning into Amazon distribution sites. But, some developers have come up with new ideas for mall spaces. With the decline of malls, and now especially the pandemic affecting our communities, the fate of these spaces is changing rapidly.

Present

Malls were once a major part of American culture and society. But, many historical, cultural, and economic factors have contributed to both the decline of malls and the increased use of online retail. Increased globalization and technological advancement have impacted the ease with which we can order things online, therefore changing the needs of public retail. In 2020, E-commerce rose by 44%. Now that mall spaces have less use for retail, they need a new life. Mall spaces could have the opportunity to provide civic benefits during this time. What was once space that poorly impacted neighboring cities and neighborhoods could be reclaimed under community ownership.

Many cities are turning these spaces into Amazon fulfillment centers or Industrial warehouses. However, Amazon centers fail to address the need for public space to foster community connections and civic engagement — an opportunity that mall space presents if adapted and developed appropriately.

Some creative developers have taken mall space and turned it into more of what Gruen envisioned, like churches, medical centers, schools, and housing. Additionally, some developers have created new projects, such as urban parks, residences, and even a lagoon. Mall space provides developers with a unique opportunity to do something different and beneficial for the communities that they exist in.

Many urban planners are advocating for Mixed-Use Development. Mixed-Use development can be defined as development projects that provide more than one use or purpose within a shared building or development area. Mall spaces offer an excellent opportunity for this because of their zoning, large size, and location.

Possibilities

Malls are in dire need of a new future. They may be used for commercial profit in a new way, or they may be transformed into spaces that foster civic and community engagement.

At CultureHouse we are curious about the opportunity that vacant or underutilized mall spaces provide for new social infrastructure projects. As we grapple with the complexity of the historical context of these spaces we hope to inspire ways they can be used as a focal point for community oriented development, increasing local economic activity, and improving livability and joy.

CultureHouse improves livability in local communities by transforming unused spaces into vibrant social infrastructure.