Here's how much of America is occupied by big box stores.

A nearly vacant mall. (Photo by Johnny Sanphillippo)

A nearly vacant mall. (Photo by Johnny Sanphillippo)

Last week, we ran a Business Insider story on our social media feeds entitled, "The retail apocalypse has officially descended on America." It included a tidbit of data that intrigued Strong Towns member and Urban3 geoaccountant, Josh McCarty. "The US has 23.5 square feet of retail space per person," the article claimed. Multiplying this number by the American population gives us more than 250 square miles of retail. "Of course that's the building," says Josh. "We know parking can easily be twice the size of a retail building." 

We dug a little deeper into this number and searched for a reputable source to confirm it. What we actually discovered was an even larger number. JLL, a professional services and investment management firm specializing in real estate, puts out regular reports on the state of a number of American industries including retail. Their Q1 2016 report offers an even more astonishing number: 10,379,714,043 square feet, which gives us a whopping 32.5 square feet of retail per person. This number includes single-story retail (i.e. big box), shopping malls, and strip malls.

Josh McCarty took the liberty of visualizing this vast amount of retail space, plus an estimate of the accompanying parking that always comes with it. Here's an illustration of all that retail, overlayed on the state of Delaware. The black area is store space while the red area is parking lot.

And just for kicks, let's take a look at this retail blob in comparison to the cities of Chicago (left) and Los Angeles (right):

Finally, here's all the big box/mall retail plus parking overlayed on the entire United States:

That's visible from space!

As Josh writes,

From our [Urban3's] work all around the country we know that this kind of development produces minimal taxes and has a short, ahem, shelf life. As we work through the first and second life-cycles of big box retail, more and more of the space depicted in the graphic will "go dark" and be replaced by new and equally short-lived buildings. How much of that can we build as a society and hope to maintain?

One question that remains unanswered by the data we found is just how much big box and mall retail space is sitting vacant in America right now. The JLL report indicates an average vacancy rate of 5.6% of the total retail square footage in the country. However, JLL is a firm that's clearly biased in favor of retail and wants to paint a pretty picture of its success. The report is littered with cheery quotes about how vacancies are down and demand is outstripping supply (that one's a real puzzler if you've been reading the news lately). So it's not clear if the JLL report is only accounting for this small percentage of vacancies within buildings that are still operating (for instance, a shopping mall with a few empty stores), or whether it's also accounting for the vast amount of vacant strip malls, Walmarts, and other big box chains that dot the United States.

It seems unlikely that the firm is counting all the vacancies in our nation. A search for accurate data on this number turned up mixed results. Part of the problem is that much of the research on big box stores is conducted by organizations with a vested interest in touting big box and shopping mall success, so they tend to reframe or underreport the data.

Still, these images speak for themselves and show us just how much land we've given over to such an unproductive retail model.

(All graphics created by Josh McCarty)

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