Shopping malls may still be able to show the way ahead in planning

Ever since the end of the Second World War, strip malls have been the commercial-retail centre of suburbia.

We in North America drove to those strip malls that were placed along a main road, just outside of city centres.

People flocked to those malls for grocery shopping, perhaps to leave clothes to be dry cleaned, or to go to barber shops or movie theatres.

Now, strip malls increasingly are beset by hard times.

Vacancy rates are at the highest in decades. Chain stores are leaving malls and their decline has been accentuated by rampant overbuilding. The number of retail square feet has more than doubled in two decades, with the result that empty store fronts have become commonplace.

Owners of strip malls are anxiously trying to find new renters. Ethnic food stores, political candidates looking for short-term office space or inexpensive “dollar-type” stores have become new tenants.

Suburban staple mall tenants, such as big store chains, are moving into cities leaving in their wake many empty spaces.

Clearly, the creation of clustered shops, defined by a combination of easy access and parking space for automobiles, is going out of fashion. The flat buildings surrounded by vast expanses of asphalt, are searching for ways to be transformed into more urban-like centres.

Many unique suggestions have been forthcoming, such as a pedestrian-oriented design with a residential component.

It has been noted that shopping malls waste a tremendous amount of space, ostensibly for parking. There, residential or office space could be built.

One mall owner has experimented with drastically altering the mall and replacing it with new blocks of mixed stores, offices and single-family homes.

There is a rising demand for more urban lifestyle arrangements in suburbia.

Another owner has retrofitted his property, dividing it into four new blocks with towers that house apartments and townhouses. Roadways divide the property into commercial and residential uses. Quite obviously, taking a parking lot and using it for multi-storey towers can be a real money maker.

Many strip malls can be rezoned, with a road separating the residential sections from the business ones.

Then new town centres can spring up, and amenities such as a cycle path can be added, perhaps all near a train station.

Unhappiness with the increasingly desolated strip malls can be replaced by implementing innovative ideas that would be both a commercial and environmental success. That could be a gateway for creative planners to demonstrate what can be achieved.


Bruce Whitestone