A Second Life for the American Mall

‘Dead’ suburban malls, with their existing infrastructure, offer a variety of opportunities for redevelopment into everything from housing to parks.

2 minute read

June 12, 2022, 11:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction


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. 

Wednesday, June 8, 2022 in The New York Times

Rendering of electric scooters, electric cars, light rail train, and apartments in background.

Arizona’s ‘Car-Free’ Community Takes Shape

Culdesac Tempe has been welcoming residents since last year.

February 14, 2024 - The Cool Down

Aerial view of suburban sprawl with large single-family homes near Dallas, Texas.

The Changing Shape of American Suburbs

Housing costs and availability are pushing more American households, including young families, to suburbs and exurbs — and they’re demanding changes.

February 13, 2024 - Business Insider

Freeway toll booth with "Stop" and "Pay Toll" signs

Clearer Thinking About Transportation Pricing

It’s time to reform transportation pricing to reduce traffic congestion, crashes, and pollution, and improve non-auto travel options. Raise my prices, please!

February 13, 2024 - Todd Litman

Two wood-frame houses under construction.

Housing Affordability Slow to Improve

Supply remains low, signaling little relief for renters and potential homebuyers.

35 minutes ago - Florida Phoenix

Man on bike rides next to parked cars.

Opinion: How Vehicle-to-Everything Tech Can Protect Cyclists

The technology could enable cars and bikes to communicate and reduce collisions.

1 hour ago - Streetsblog USA

Aerial view of housing and freeway in Cupertino, California.

Proposal Would Link Highway Funding to Zoning

Experts argue that zoning, housing, and transportation policy are intimately linked.

2 hours ago - Federation of American Scientists

News from HUD User

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

The Walkable City

Harvard GSD Executive Education

New Updates on PD&R Edge

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

Urban Design for Planners 1: Software Tools

This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.

Planning for Universal Design

Learn the tools for implementing Universal Design in planning regulations.