‘Dead’ suburban malls, with their existing infrastructure, offer a variety of opportunities for redevelopment into everything from housing to parks.
In an opinion piece in The New York Times, Alexandra Lange calls for a more creative approach to transforming dead malls, one that considers the mall’s roots as an indoor garden. “Some should be demolished and returned to nature, but more should be rethought from an ecological point of view. While malls are a wasteful use of land, replacement with new stand-alone buildings with space-hogging parking lots only compounds that wastefulness: Better to add (perimeter buildings, solar panels, trees) and to swap (markets for department stores, classrooms for boutiques).”
Malls represent heavy investments in infrastructure, construction materials and place making that should not be discarded. The popularity of dead malls as sites for Covid testing and eventually vaccinations underlines these essential qualities: Easy road access, unencumbered indoor space, instant name recognition.
Lange outlines the history of the American mall and its role in public life, then describes a series of mall redevelopment projects that have transformed suburban malls, drawing from “Case Studies in Retrofitting Suburbia” by June Williamson and Ellen Dunham-Jones. Some have been redeveloped into mixed-use projects with apartments, retail, and office space. Others have become civic centers, medical facilities, schools, or parks.
Lange acknowledges the problematic nature of privatizing green space. According to Lange, shopping malls have “historically cultivated specific audiences by virtue of their locations sometimes in segregated suburbs and, later, by codes of conduct designed to limit the impact of groups of teenagers.” However, the changes evident in many shopping centers that formerly catered to mainly white audiences signal that malls can successfully transform into diverse venues for shopping, entertainment, and community functions that serve immigrant communities.
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