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My alarm went off yesterday morning. As I grabbed for my phone to silence the alarm, I quickly scrolled through Twitter, as I usually do when I first wake up, to get skim over the headlines of the previous 24 hours. This one particular tweet stood out to me; 

A mega mall is the closest thing you can get to a traditional city in the United States? I followed the link through to the Yahoo article.

In an interesting turn of events - despite reports of big box stores closing, of smaller malls loosing their anchor and dying a sad death - the regional megamall is thriving as ever; 

Why? And what does this have to do with it being the closest thing we have to a traditional city in the United States? 

If you watch the video in the Yahoo article, I found it interesting when the presenter on the left described his experience of malls growing up; 

"I grew up in the suburbs, that's where we went - because there wasn't anywhere else to go."

The presenter on the right replied that megamalls are going to survive because people will continue to want a place to 'hang out' at in the suburbs. From kids that want to play arcade games, to the elderly people that just want to get out of the house - the mall represents an important third place for the community. It is a place that is lively and vibrant, that you otherwise do not experience in the suburbs. 

So how is it, as Nathan Lewis put it in his tweet, that the megamall is like a traditional city? 

To put it simply, walking through a mall; 

Is not very different to walking through a vibrant city street in Europe; 

Or Asia; 

Or anywhere else. Whether you are outside or inside is just a technicality. Plenty of cities have covered streets; 

And plenty of malls are outdoors; 

But, the experience of being in a place that is human-scale, full of activity, and is 100% place is the same. 

The Mall of America for instance, has some 500 or so retailers, a movie cinema, an amusement park, an aquarium, and is also the busiest transit hub in Minnesota. The megamall is essentially an indoor town - and one of the most walkable and urban places in the entire country. You may have to drive to get to the megamall, but once you are in the megamall, you only have to park your car once and spend the rest of your day completely immersed in a well laid out, pedestrian environment. This is not very different to someone that lives in the country and has to drive into their nearest large town, but once they are there, they can make a day of shopping, entertainment, and exploring the urban environment. 

If we built a megamall and incorporated residents and some kind of non-retail industry, we would essentially have a town. 

The best walkable environments I have visited in the United States have been shopping malls, college campuses, and amusement parks. They are places designed from the ground up to be experienced on foot, to accomidate thousands of people streaming through them; 

They even often offer city-like services - they maintain parks, their own security team, and many even run their own transit systems - like the famous monorail system at the Walt Disney World Resort; 

Would it really be such a bad idea for the American cities of the future to be planned by mall architects and the like - people that have experience in designing places that are human-scale and optimized to be experienced on foot? 

A lot of people will scoff at this idea - as malls are privately owned and master planned - while cities are supposedly bottom-up decentralized systems. But in reality, there is not much of a difference. While a megamall may dictate where the food vendors go to form a food court, where the cinema and department stores go, and where the small vendors should be located - a city does exactly the same, dictating through zoning and traffic projections where people may live, or where the next big box stores may build. 

At a high level, our cities already plan what goes where. Our cities pick and choose which specific retailer, office campus, or factory to attract and subsidize. We dictate the layout of our buildings from the spacing between our houses to how tall that garage extension can be. Both malls and cities provide utilities, corridors/streets, security, cleaning, and other essential services. Malls charge rent to cover the cost of these services, while cities charge tax. Our cities are no less master planned than a mall - build a mall with accommodations, a school, and some non-retail industry and malls and cities would be indistinguishable other than by their name. 

What would it look like if we had mall architects plan our cities like malls? 

Honestly, it does not look too bad - and it would probably be a lot more financially profitable than most of the cities we build today. If you think this is crazy, it is less crazy than if, at the turn of the 20th century, I told you that we should build cities where everyone is promised their own miniature European mansions complete with detached country gardens, where everyone requires a car just to get to work, school, or their nearest shop. 

Back to Nathan's tweet - "Megamall = closest you can get to a Traditional City in US" - I agree with him. We need to build our cities more like malls. Or even university campuses - I would love it if my walk to work was a stroll through this every day; 

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Reader Comments (17)

Great piece on the urbanism of malls, Andrew.

It's interesting that in the Yahoo video, the "malls are failing" intro talk showed interior shots of Southdale Center in Edina, Minnesota (the world's first enclosed mall, envisioned by Austrian architect Victor Gruen and the local department store family who created Target a few years later).

After a rough patch, Southdale Center is doing okay. It's in an upscale area, across the street from a very upscale mall and a mile away from Edina's "traditional downtown" which is also an upscale shopping district.

But the weird thing is that Southdale is literally 6 miles, 11 minutes by freeway, away from the Mall of America - the "thriving megamall."

The Mall of America was built in the early-90s, on the blighted site of the former Twins/Vikings stadium the recently-demolished Metrodome replaced, using exotic tax increment financing and requiring wildly expensive new interchanges and stroads for access. Then, a decade ago, a light rail line was built that connected the basement of the mall directly to MSP airport and Downtown Minneapolis. Meanwhile, Downtown Minneapolis also had a rough spell for retail, from which we're now recovering due to tens of thousands of residents moving in.

But, since that wasn't enough, the 2013 Minnesota Legislature passed $250 million in tax breaks for the Mall of America to expand, up to $1.5 billion in private expansion which will eventually double the size of the mall so it can be bigger than the malls in Asia and Dubai. Normally, a $250 million subsidy would be news, but it was vastly eclipsed by subsidies for the Mayo Clinic ($500 million) and a replacement NFL stadium (nearly $1 billion).

And we wonder why the mall 6 miles down the road is struggling?

March 19, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMatt Steele

You ask "What would it look like if we had mall architects plan our cities like malls?" and then show a photograph of Charlottesville's Downtown Mall. (That image is uncredited, and presumably inappropriately reused. The photo is, in fact, by one Dorothy Thayer, who took it in 2010.) Charlottesville's Downtown Mall was planned by several urban planners, not "mall architects," in the late 1960s. We have a plaque honoring them just a block from where this photograph was taken. One of those designers is, today, the mayor of the city.

Charlottesville's Downtown Mall is what a city looks like when forward-thinking urban planners design a downtown. "Mall architects" had nothing to do with it.

March 19, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterWaldo Jaquith

Also, the Mall of America is not an indoor town. At least not a town in America, complete with rights for people on the sidewalk. Start taking pictures and mall security may forward a dossier to the FBI...

March 19, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMatt Steele

So, are you suggesting we should start adding residential and non-retail commercial space to malls or that we should redesign our cities to resemble shopping malls?

March 19, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterForaker

Entertainment and Shopping all in a safe environment. This is the peak of human achievement? The good life is being a spectator? Bring on the Hunger Games!!

March 19, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBrian Skeele

Charles? Chuck?

Since the top-down central planning is the antithesis of the organic evolution of growth built with value that has already been captured, I am thinking Chuck may open a can of whoop-ass here....

March 19, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRuben Anderson

The distinct advantage that our traditional city centers have over malls is the freedom for more people to enjoy them in more ways and at more times. Yes, there is retail in our cities and that is fantastic. But there is so much more, and one does not need to buy or even browse to coexist there. City streets also don't have strict operating hours. Lots of public space is certainly policed, but it remains far freer than the confines of a mall. Don't believe me? Bring a clipboard into an enclosed mall and see how long it takes for you to be intercepted by security.

March 19, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan Tarr

Thank you everyone - I appreciate all of your feedback!

About the comments that malls are private entities that don't have the same rights as cities, can close after hours, or have different security policies - I think you're diverging from the point of my article. I wasn't suggesting we privatize our cities, or close them after hours. Nor am I suggesting we enforce even greater top down control (I was merely comparing to the fact that our cities already have extensive top down control on what goes where and how it looks.)

I am trying to invoke creative thought here - what if we humored ourselves for a minute and instead of our existing standards we bought a mall or college campus architect in to design our cities zoning codes and streets?

Or we can humor ourselves in the opposite direction - what if a developer built a (outdoor) megamall that accommodated for more than just retail (there were apartments, a school, multiple industries for employment) - with a functioning and largely resilient internal economy?

I encourage you to look beyond the legal and implementation differences and imagine the possible forms and experiences of those places.

This leads to Foraker's question - either works. I'm not trying to say the path we must specifically take, but try to inspire others about the possibilities if they could produce.

There is a lot we can learn from these privately owned human-centric environments. They know how to create a pleasant experience that attracts people. There are large 24 hour mega malls designed by architects that must incorporate things such as freight delivery without affecting the "street level" experience. College campuses and amusement parks know how to run shuttle busses and other forms of transit to generate value. Most of them are designed in ways to accomidate future growth incrementally, just as cities encounter. There is a lot our cities can learn from these places.

March 19, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Price

I think we need to just drop the mall analogy all together. They were a mistake - Victor Gruen admitted as much himself in later life. To use them as any type of reference for the future is leading us even further down the path towards a corporate-inspired death spiral that will be hard enough to pull out of already. Remember: everything you see in a mall is designed to sell products...none of it is based on community building.

There is much more to real city life that branding and we don't need the mall to figure out what a real place looks, feels or sounds like. We have hundreds of years of real city building knowledge to guide us and ample physical examples of excellent building stock right here in small city America (as opposed to "The Mall Of").

I am a huge proponent of good streets...but lets not undervalue the role of truly good architecture just because we haven't seen much of it in the last fifty years.

March 19, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDennis R Lieb

I agree with you, Dennis.

Victor Gruem himself, envisioned malls as being fully functional town centers, rather than merely high end retail hubs.

It has been tought trying to sell the traditional city format to Americans. The closest thing to walking through a lively vibrant traditional city that you can experience in the United States is walking through a lively vibrant mall. It is not the same thing (as people have pointed out) but it's the best we've got.

Whether it's a proposal to infill an existing neighborhood or develop a walkable urban village in the countryside, I'm constantly bombarded with questions about how freight deliveries would work, how emergency services would get access, etc. These problems can largely be solved from what we have learned building megamalls, amusement parks that span hundreds of acres, and college campuses. They're all different styles of development - just as a real traditional city is its own style, just as the hypertrophic American city is another style, and conventional suburbia is also a style. I'm trying to encourage us to use our imaginations to innovate and come up with environments that are vastly different to the cities we build today.

Would I want a city where everything is built by a single developer? No, but it doesn't mean we can't imitate the best parts of the styles we love and learn a thing or two about what makes a great environment for people to live in.

March 19, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Price

Great post, Andrew. Your thoughts remind me of architect Jon Jerde, someone who has been, for a long time, making outdoor spaces more mall-like (like Fremont St. in Las Vegas) and mall spaces more outdoor, or city-like (underperforming malls in So. California).

Also, I think you hit something deep in the history of development. Many town founders were--like mall builders--real estate developers. They purchased land, built some public amenities around a town square, then reaped profits when adjoining real estate was split and sold.

Maybe the big distinction is that, a century ago, real estate developers could easily profit off of making adjoining land more profitable. Today, adjoining land is discounted, ignored, or subsidized.

March 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterKit A

I'm glad Victor Gruen was brought up. He was indeed an Austrian emigre and grew up around the great shopping district of central Vienna, so he was very familiar with the virtues of traditional urbanism. He understood that concentrating people together in a space with shopping and dining would produce a kind of cosmopolitan atmosphere that was an important part of urban life. There are indeed important parallels between regional malls and traditional downtowns that offer some good insights into how we can transform malls and keep them relevant into the future

However, I don't think we can so easily dismiss the differences. A downtown mixes private businesses with truly public space that allows for free expression. The rules of behavior in this public space are determined through the democratic process, not by a corporate owner that is only accountable to his shareholders. A downtown is a center for commerce, social life, and political life, while malls wholly deny the potential for political speech.

March 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRoland S

While we're at it, here's Jerusalem's Via Dolorosa, at the 8th Station of the Cross:


The enclosed roof is a typical traditional Middle Eastern element found in casbahs and medinas in the region, and in no way detracts from that being an ordinary street.

The thing is you can't quite disentangle the physical layout of a space with its legal and societal layout: who owns it, who pays to maintain it, and who's allowed to do what on it. In American culture a street is first and foremost a means of traversing from one piece of private property to another, and a place to congregate for social purposes a distant second. You can consider a mall walkway a "street" when you've instructed the mallcops not to chase away those they designate as mallrats.

March 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterOmri

Roland - thank you for your input!

The cosmopolitan/lively atmosphere you talk about that you experience in of the cores of traditional cities does emerge in malls and large college campuses.

The fact that malls are privately owned is still an implementation issue - not a criticism of its form - I'm not suggesting that our cities transfer to private hands, but rather, we learn a thing or two from them about how they create their lively atmospheres so we can go back to creating them in our cities!

Jumping back to where I said "if we had mall architects plan our cities" - I'm not suggesting we turn our cities into malls with all of the same rules and regulations. I'm asking you to envision the possibilities if we had those architects apply their place-making skills to our cities - what would it look like if we allowed them to lay out our streets, and design our building codes and public places? (While still keeping the end result a 24-hour, public-owned, legally-defined city.)

Omri: Great comments! We would not have to change laws concerning what is private vs public property. You would still have public streets and parks, with individual private lots - although at a much finer grained (traditional city) scales than what is typical now.

In the example where you showed - where streets are either covered or there is a 2nd level that crosses over the street - I can think of at least three ways (and probably more) that this could be done the existing legal system;

- Private property owners in dozens of American cities have got together and built skyways over and under streets - we see this all around the U.S. where a hotel takes up two city blocks and builds a bridge across the street.
- that particular 'street' could simply be a public access through a private property- like this in Cannon Beach, Oregon.
- the city could own and construct the roof - the only example I can think of is Queen Street in Brisbane, Australia but a similar thing can be done in the U.S.

March 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Price

Millions of Americans already choose to live under rather onerous Homeowners' Associations with dubious due process. These HoAs are not public.

I think it would be an interesting experiment to have cities sell or lease its responsiblities for portions of cities to outside organizations in exchange for different types of revenue streams (traditional or innovative). An outside organization that is adept in place making (and value capture) could adopt its own rules and fee structures and be rewarded for fiscally responsible decisions and investments.

Andrew, do you have the low-down on what is going on in Australia? Obviously, Macquarie has been leasing highway infrastructure for years. And I've heard of another Australian company that is acquiring infrastructure maintenance responsibilies in return for portions of increased real estate appraisals/taxes. I know that U.S. Filter/Veolia are trying to take over city-wide maintenance responsibilities (water, sewer, streets, etc.) in the U.S.

Maybe this could be one of the reactions/solutions to complete failure to pay for infrastructure O&M.

March 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterKit A

Kit A: A really good source would be Partnerships Victoria:

If you click on 'Projects' you'll see plenty of case studies (freeways, hospitals, prisons, desalination and water systems, etc.) Each one should have a project summary that goes into detail about financing, risks, ownership, and other questions you may have.

It's interesting how it works, because it implies that (for at least the first life cycle) a private investor would only be interested if it expected to make a ROI.

March 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Price

Walking down M Street in Georgetown (Washington DC), it's hard not to compare it to a mall. There's an Urban Outfitters next to a Steve Madden next to a Michael Kors, and so on. The difference, I think, is that Georgetown (or, more pointedly, less privileged but physically similar areas such as Girard Avenue in Philadelphia) is adaptable. These places are individually owned and can be renovated piecemeal. You already see it in some of the areas of large cities that have gentrified, after decades of decline.

Essentially, the lowest of the lows in traditional neighborhoods will be quite low indeed—but after hitting them, the neighborhood isn't going to close for business. Instead, small parts of the street might be renovated, the positive development spreads outward from that core, and the neighborhood eventually recovers. (Think about Brooklyn, in general.)

I have never seen a mall recover after losing a couple of its anchor stores. Usually, if they lose one, it's okay; a Borders or Circuit City might be replaced with a Macy's, or something similar. Lose two or three, and the replacements, if any are found, will be of lower socioeconomic status, and the small vendors who were relying on the higher-end shoppers will close, causing a chain reaction of failure. In essence, malls are fragile while private ownership is not.

That doesn't mean, however, that Andrew's point is completely incorrect; he's arguing for the form of malls, not the management aspects. In this, I think most of us agree; it's just that we've long seen malls as the enemy, a grotesque monoculture, and can't recognize their good points.

March 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBlake Hyde
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