Just when you thought the end of malls couldn't get any worse...


Shopping malls across America are slowly dying, as we've detailed previously. That means fewer jobs, less tax income to support city functions, and of course, the gaping holes that vacant malls and their associated parking lots leave in our cities once they breathe their last breath.

But a recent article in Business Insider brings up another major problem with dying shopping malls: crime. Just like any dark, neglected and ignored corner of a city, a half-empty or vacant mall can become a haven for criminal activity:

Kevin Zent, 59, of Memphis, Tennessee, said that crime is a huge problem at malls near his home and that he no longer shops at them as a result.

"Cars are keyed randomly in mall parking lots, and there is not enough security to provide the level of safety a family wants while they are at the mall," he told Business Insider.

There were 890 reported crime incidents at one Memphis-area mall between January 1, 2012, and July 15, 2015.

What's more, crime and mall decline are part of a self-reinforcing cycle: As malls empty out, their parking lots and shuttered areas attract crime... which makes people less interested in shopping there... which means more mall stores close and the building declines even further. The Business Insider article suggests that vacant, crime-filled malls are even decreasing business at neighboring stores.

But while this article concludes with a hopeful anecdote about some developers who are hoping to bring malls back to life by making them hubs of "experiential retail," we at Strong Towns have quite a different conclusion: This should never have happened in the first place.

By taking all the standard business activity in a city — shopping for clothes and household products, getting a haircut, etc. — and moving them to the edge of town in areas built for and only accessible by car, we have robbed our communities of wealth. We inverted the standard design of cities that has been in place for centuries in which the necessities of daily life are located in the middle of town, accessible by the maximum amount of people who can take a simple walk to fulfill their basic needs.

Under that model, the closure of a few shops would merely mean that a storefront was now available for another business. Because traditional main street-type stores were built in a way that could accommodate many different sorts of businesses on a modest scale, a former tailor's shop could fairly easily be converted into a tavern — and the available space would be seen be hundreds of passersby on a daily basis. 

In contrast, 20th century malls were designed to rely on massive "anchor" department stores and when one of those leaves, it's quite hard to find another business that can afford to fill that space and needs it. That section of the mall turns into a gaping hole, which makes the whole place less appealing. This cycle is partly why so many malls are failing miserably, and why crime is now becoming part of the problem too.

Learn more about the pitfalls of malls and auto-oriented development, and why a radically different approach is needed to save our cities.