Day 6·Design .20

Rethinking shopping malls: How icons of the '80s can survive a changing retail landscape

The 1980's were the heyday of shopping malls, but to survive today those retail spaces need to be retrofitted to offer experiences as well, says architect and urban designer Ellen Dunham-Jones.

'The retail that's doing well right now is providing experiences you can't get online,' says urban designer

Shoppers are seen at Toronto Eaton Centre during Boxing Day. While malls saw their heyday in the 1980s, many are being re-imagined to include experiences. (Cole Burston/The Canadian Press)

When Victor Gruen first imagined the shopping mall, the Austrian architect envisioned a modern re-thinking of the small-town meeting places he loved in Europe.

Like the plazas around his Vienna home, enclosed shopping malls would offer the growing population of suburban Americans spaces to gather, eat and shop — but with the modern convenience of heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer.

Gruen's malls would have civic uses too, combining business with libraries and post offices, explained architecture and urban design expert Ellen Dunham-Jones.

"He really saw them as town centres," she told Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

After his first enclosed mall, the Southdale Center in Minnesota, opened in 1956, Gruen's version of the modern town square proved popular into the 1980s. 

But as demographics changed, so did opinions of the enclosed shopping centre.

"By the later '90s and into the 2000s, the baby boom generation — who had supported malls very strongly — they're starting to hit retirement age," Dunham-Jones explained.

"They were big consumers, but at this point, they kind of have all the stuff they need."

At the same time, she adds, coming-of-age millennials were looking for experiences over material goods.

Reimagining retail

But it wasn't just generational shifts that contributed to the shopping mall's downfall.

Online shopping has made some trips to the store unnecessary and consumers have shifted their gathering spaces from physical to virtual.

"The retail that's doing well right now is providing experiences you can't get online," Dunham-Jones explained.


Meanwhile, as malls fell out of favour, U.S. developers were faced with simply too much real estate.

"We built them at almost every sort of highway intersection we could find. And as a result, there was already starting to be quite a bit of cannibalization," Dunham-Jones explained.

Now, with more than 500 malls across the U.S. closed, the Georgia Tech professor says developers are looking north for ideas on how to reimagine the former town squares.

"In strong markets, they're being redeveloped into much more urban, mixed use places," she said. "In weaker markets, we're seeing them being re-inhabited with much more community serving uses — lots of medical, educational [and] lots of places of worship are moving into malls."

Return of the town square

Dunham-Jones points to Highland Mall in Austin, Tex., as a notable example of how former retail meccas can be reused.

Once a bustling suburban mall, Highland Mall closed in 2015 and has been taken over by an unlikely tenant — Austin Community College.

"Initially, they just bought one department store. They now own the whole mall," Dunham-Jones said.

"They've partnered with a developer who is now building on top of all the parking lots around the mall, both a combination of office space [and] a lot of apartments. They also have ringed the entire thing with a park system and jogging trails. And they're at a brand new transit stop."

As developers reimagine what shopping malls can be, Dunham-Jones says we're returning to Gruen's original vision.

"There is something that's pretty timeless about the feeling of belonging to a town — there being an identity that's not just chain stores; that's not just cookie cutter."

To hear more about how shopping malls are changing, download our podcast or click Listen above.


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