John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
The American landscape is littered with the decaying corpses of strip malls. Here are a few innovative ways we can turn them to our advantage.
The American landscape is littered with the decaying corpses of strip malls.
These boxy retail behemoth were once considered essential to a complete postwar suburb. Today, 11 percent of strip malls in North America are considered totally derelict. Their fundamental design is a huge part of the problem. Situated on busy roads, they were meant to suck up the business of commuters traveling to and from work. Nowadays, however, fewer people are driving because of higher gas prices, more traffic and an increasing reliance on walking and public transportation. Plus, when you can put in an order at Amazon and get it the next day, why go to the mall?
Should we just stand and stare at these cavernous, dust-covered remnants of a bygone shopping era?
Rob Shields thinks not. Last year, the sociology professor at the University of Alberta's City-Region Studies Centre put out a call to repurpose dead and aging strip malls for our modern times. Designers from 11 countries accepted the challenge, filling Shields' inbox with all sorts of weird and futuristic strip malls. A jury picked the contest winners in January, which you can see along with other submissions below. For all you folks who have wanted to see a former JCPenney's transformed into a manure-holding area, these designs are for you. (Click on the names for full descriptions.)
Jury winner: "Free Zoning"
The firm Davidson Rafailidis approached this decrepit strip mall in Buffalo the way a man who's just killed a big deer with his car might: It's not doing any good just sitting there, so why not chop it up and use it?
The designers note that the crime-ridden Central Park Plaza, built in 1957 but suffering just 15 years later, is made from loads of salvageable construction materials. By knocking the standing structures down and sorting out the building materials, they propose to reconstruct a new project on top of the original foundation. The hook: there will be no zoning ordinances. The freedom to build whatever could inspire a nice mixed-use community, where people would live in sustainable homes that look like this:
And if you don't want to live in a triangle, there's something wrong with you.
Jury Runner-up: Park(ed) Mall
That horrible graphic aside, the team of Carole Levesque, Todd Ashton and Aumer Assaf have created something quite nifty: a Canadian mash-up of a trailer park and a Third World marketplace. They've propose to drop the bomb on several strip malls in Edmonton, figuratively, razing the sites so they can become grassy parks. The former malls are not exactly eliminated, however. Each store gets its own mobile trailer that drives around to these parks and sets up shop on a dock, thereby servicing different neighborhoods throughout the week. (Now do you understand why that girl above is crazy about Thursdays?)
The mobile stores gives Edmonton residents access to the goods and services they need without putting them behind the wheels of cars, a happy design for the environment. And what with the docking station's water, power, waste and telecom hookups, the retailers shouldn't squawk too much about suddenly having to become short-haul truckers.
Public vote Winner: Unbox-Embrace-Cohere
The duo of Geraldine Li and Jasper Hilkhuijsen embraced their inner Bart Simpsons for this popular design. Examining a '60s-era strip mall in an impoverished part of Enschede, in the Netherlands, they were taken aback by its unfriendly nature: It basically looked like a giant, impervious Lego block. So they whipped up a plan to remove the back side altogether, making it into another "front side." Then they decided to chop down other walls and plow open-air avenues through the mall to turn it into an airy neighborhood center, full of hip shops and X Games-worthy activities:
Enschede's lower-income residents would presumably enjoy signing up for activities at one of the center's new units, such as boxing, attending a concert or painting on a graffiti wall. There would also be a repair shop for bicycles or grandmother's electric scooter. Radical!
Here are a few other design submissions, with short notes on each:
Dora Baker, Pablo Batista, Natalie Badenduck
The designers submitted six proposals for malls around Winnipeg, Manitoba. The above site is called Hillscape, which sports a rooftop park and a toboggan slide (!). Residents could also use the slopes to ski or snowboard during the winter, or to eat a nice free-range bison sandwich on during the summer.
Shipping Container Mall
Larry Kwok, Jim Morrow
Edmonton, Alberta, would be a lot more intense if this retrofitted mall with shipping containers jammed through it gets built. The designers note that the containers are not expensive and take well to custom alterations, allowing different retailers to move in and out of the boxes quickly. Thus the mall would be an ever-changing entity, with one month's Hot Topic morphing into an Auntie Annes Pretzels the next.
You can almost hear Enya singing in the background when you look at this plan for a mall in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The roof has become a garden with insulated skylights, edible flowers and low bush blueberries. Modular units stand in the place of stores, and everything in this "convival community" runs on wind, solar and geothermal energy.
This design faces the fact that not everybody wants to give up the car to embrace "walkability." So this dead Edmonton outlet becomes the car park to end all car parks. The garage is fully automated, so no driving up ramps and through aisles is necessary. Just pull up underneath that giant hook-thingie and run fast, I guess? The designers of this project envision it as a neighborhood hub, as people must visit it repeatedly to retrieve their rides. For that reason there would be retail stores throughout the garage, although after a year or two they'd probably all turn into AutoZones and Advanced Auto Parts.
Wouldn't this 1940s Detroit mall look much nicer as a farm? This designer sure thinks so, adding neat rows of crops in a designated growing space and a marketplace and restaurant that serves fresh produce. Trains running on light rail could deliver excess veggies to stores up and down the avenue. Rainwater flows down the sloped roof into a cistern for irrigation purposes, and the whole farm would be fertilized with compost made onsite.