Many of you know me well enough to know of my passion for Urban Geography. Understanding and learning about the places we choose to live in, create, visit, preserve, and demolish says a great deal about us as individuals and as a community.
The photo below comes from one of the best places to perform a sort of anthropological survey of our history and our future- a suburban mall. This particular one is uniquely interesting. A new H&M is under construction, while many other prime stores are no where to be found. The food court only claims a couple of national chains and the clearest indication of the mall's success is found in the presence of a used bookstore. There are many reasons why it is rather uncommon to find a used bookstore in a traditional mall- the economics alone make it almost shocking.
But despite the empty storefronts and the tenant roster that seems more like a strip mall than a mega-mall, there is something far more interesting here. People. Lots of them. For a weekday night, I would rate the foot traffic as good, if not excellent.
There-in lies the most intriguing question- what does it take to make a traditional mall a success. People are important, of course, but they are not the end all be all. If they arent buying, or are only buying from the discount retailers that pass as anchors in many of these types of situations, then what gives?
My theory is that for many the mall still serves as that community place. The place to go and just get out of the house and meander about. Maybe with friends or family. To that end, perhaps the mall has replaced some of the social outlets that used to be served by our neighborhoods themselves or other group activities- the PTA; bowling, the "club" etc. Or the mall has come to fill a void. In those communities that have not evolved to meet that need of community to have social spaces, the mall, no matter how downtrodden, seems to fulfill that roll. Offering a last best hope for something that communities want and need, even if it is not articulated.
Many say that the era of the mall is dead, or that it has evolved to more social and mixed use spaces. And that is a good thing for many reasons. However, let us not forget in our haste to bury the mall in the graveyard of the obsolescent to ensure we have something in it place. Someplace for people to just hang out that isnt in their basement on a computer or watching their latest and greatest 100 inch curved plasma tv.
Humans will build a community and they will find connections in places as arid as the desert or as suffering as a mall. We must make sure we build communities that make that process easier and that are sustainable. Until that day when we have those structures, parks, and human scale towns in place, the old malls may just hang on longer than any of us expected.