Monday, November 17, 2014

Malls and urbanism

One of the biggest musical hits of the 90s in Québec was "La Rue Principale" by the group "Les Colocs" ("the Roommates"). The beginning of the song went like this:

Dans ma petite ville on était juste quatre mille
Pis la rue principale a s'appelait St-Cyrille
La Coop le gaz bar la caisse pop le croque-mort
Et le magasin général quand j'y retourne
Ça me fait assez mal!
Y'est tombé une bombe sur la rue principale
Depuis qu'y ont construit: le centre d'achat!
-Les Colocs, la Rue Principale

Translated in English, it would be this:

In my small town, we were just 4000
And the main street was called St-Cyrille
The Coop, the gas bar, the credit union, the funeral home,
And the General Store! When I go back
It makes me hurt so bad!
A bomb has fallen on main street
Since they've built... that shopping center!
-Les Colocs, la Rue Principale

The group sang of course of the collapse of traditional main streets and the rise of one of the most well-known symbols of North American suburbia: the mall.

Promenades Saint-Bruno, the biggest mall near me when I grew up
Malls came to be with the car era when the transport patterns of people shifted to highways and high-speed roads, many of them built in previously unbuilt areas. Developers built huge interior commercial areas near high-speed roads, areas with plenty of traffic and within short travel time from plenty of car-owning households. Big stores ("anchors") were included in the mall, as well as plenty of small commercial locals that could be rented by small stores, that would thrive on the traffic drawn by the "anchors" and the proximity of each other. As land was very cheap, plenty of parking could be built for a very low price.

Meanwhile, traditional main streets often collapsed into irrelevancy. With people going there less and less, and parking requirements making it harder and more expensive to invest in downtown areas, as malls rose, main streets fell.

Consequently, malls were often demonized as one of the pillars of sprawl and car-dependence. To be fair, they were easy to hate, with their huge parking lots and their gigantic blank walls, seemingly breaking every rule of good urban design (fast roads, plenty of surface parking, hard to access without a car, blanks wall all around, etc...).

The inherent weakness of malls

A new phenomenon has happened in recent years: the death of malls. Malls which lose their tenants one by one until the mall become desert and closes. This revealed a fundamental weakness of malls: as they rely on speed rather than proximity to obtain their clients, they become extremely sensitive to congestion and to competition from newer malls at other highway exits.

Since they tend to be far from most of their customers, malls rely on high-speed roads to be within reasonable distance of their clients. However, if through traffic on these high-speed roads increases and causes congestion, reducing the speed that people can travel at, then the mall practically "drifts" away from its clients since it takes more time to get to it. A trip that used to take 10 minutes can now take 15 or 20 minutes. The area the mall reaches suddenly becomes much smaller.
A mall at an highway interchange and the areas within 10 minutes of car travel of it, in blue the area if the highways are uncongested (100 km/h), in red the area if the highways are congested so that average speed is down to 60 km/h.
Also, the location near highways and other high-speed roads is also a curse as it means all malls opening within a few kilometers effectively compete directly with an existing mall, because the speed on the highway means that it takes little time to travel between malls at different exits. If two malls are within 5 kilometers (3 miles) of each other, it takes just 3 minutes to travel from one to the other (at least on uncongested highways). That is the equivalent of two stores within 200-300 meters (700-1 000 feet) of each other if people were walking. So if one mall is rather rundown and a new mall is built within a radius of 5 kilometers, it is likely to cannibalize many of the earlier mall's clients.

Since much of a mall's attraction is dependent on the diversity of stores that reinforce each other, as stores close or move to greener pastures, there is a vicious cycle of stores closing leading more and more people to flee to other malls, accelerating the decline of the stores that remain.

This is unlike commercial streets in dense cities, which tend to remain strong because they have the advantage of proximity with a lot of clients who reside within easy walking distance of them. This guarantees a certain patronage that can usually maintain these streets (unless the population declines).

Are malls inherently anti-urban?

As I said in the intro, malls have been associated with sprawl for decades. But is it a fair association that can never be broken?

After all, if we look at malls and break down what they really are, aren't they pedestrianized commercial areas where one may park once then hang around all they? And indeed, in suburbia many teens took to spending their time at the mall, like previous generations did at town squares and markets, creating the name "mallrat" (which spawned some movies and TV series, notably Kevin Smith's "Mallrats" and the Canadian animated series "6teen", which both illustrate malls as self-contained towns with their own rules and dynamics where protagonists spend their days).

Thinking about it, one could describe malls as essentially the commercial main streets taken outside of cities and put inside one big building. But otherwise, the commercial street is still there, with plenty of small commercial locals for rent, with retail and restaurants, even public plazas and fountains, just like cities. Malls in one way are the commercial part of downtown removed from downtown and put at the periphery of urban areas.

Once you exclude the parking, malls also reveal themselves to be very dense commercial areas, often with a second floor allowing them to pack more commercial space in as little a footprint as possible. Okay, they often do that to have more space for parking, but the same principle could work in an urban area in order to reduce the footprint of a mall and allowing an insertion inside urban areas.

For example:
10-story mall in the center of Kooriyama in Japan, a city of around 350 000 people
So it is very possible to have urban malls, as long as the area around is either very densely populated, well-connected through the transit system and/or that people coming by car are willing to pay for parking in multi-storied structures or in underground parking.

Malls can be a way to add big popular stores in urban areas devoid of them. Not everyone will like it as it may make things harder for local stores due to the competition, but is it better to have an urban mall next to transit nodes or to have malls in car-dependent areas with people inside cities buying cars and using them to go to these malls?

That is not to say that malls are the best way to build commercial areas into cities. Malls tend to complement streets poorly, they suck life out of them by bringing people inside rather than allowing them to mingle outside (a privatization of the public realm), which, to be fair, might be a blessing in extremely hot or cold cities. Traditional commercial streets are more organic and can change piecemeal, whereas malls tend to be hard to change as they're one big building and they feel "artificial". So aesthetically, malls are far from great, yet they can still function as boosts to walkability if used in the right spot because they are walkable commercial areas.

They are also a much lesser evil than the recent alternative that has sprouted up: the so-called "power center", which is completely car-oriented. Say what you want about malls, their location may be car-oriented, but once there, you walk from store to store, it's human-scaled inside. Power centers are not only in car-oriented areas, but their stores are spread apart around huge parking lots. So not only do you need a car to get there, but you also need a car to go from one store to the next, a completely car-oriented shopping environment.
A power center in all its ugliness
A personal loose typology of shopping areas (all examples from the region of Montréal)
The fact that malls are by themselves walkable, dense commercial areas mean that they can be retrofitted into urban areas. It isn't easy, but it can be done, by a combination of building transit links to it so people don't need cars to get there (note that apart from the highest density cities in the world, the idea of malls thriving based mostly on clients living within walking distance is naive, so transit is required, or bikes at the very least), building parking garages to replace all the surface parking (the mall will need continued car patronage while it is being retrofitted), then filling the rest of the parking lots with offices and high-density housing. As they are frequently in greenfield areas, there is also plenty of room for growth around.

Theoretically, a mall could become the "seed" for the downtown of a new city. However, I am not aware of any area that has successfully achieved such a transition. I know that Mississauga in Ontario is attempting it, building high-rise condo towers around its existing malls.
High-rise condo towers being built in relative proximity to a mall in Mississauga
Square One mall in Mississauga City Center, with nearby towers
For the moment, from what I hear, the results are not all that great. The towers are still within "car proximity" rather than "walking proximity", not helped by the gigantic patches of asphalt in the form of parking lots and enormous stroads.


  1. I have not experienced Canadian malls but I found Australian malls to be different to American malls. I feel that many American malls I visit tend to be purely luxury retail (fast food outlets, clothes, a department store). My local shopping centre in Australia had bank branches, 2 supermarkets, pharmacies, a doctor's clinic, post office, and the local library. It served more as an indoor town - people would actually visit the shopping centre weekly for their local needs. It had a lot of free parking behind the shopping centre, but the front was built up against the street and integrated well with the other shops, and was a comfortable walk to the surrounding houses (including my parents' house).


    Also, you only briefly mention urban malls. Both universities I attended where on urban campuses, within a few blocks walk of the retail heart of the city. There were many indoor shopping centres, often with their own food court - and everyday I'd walk to lunch with my friends - we'd find a table, each get our own food, and we'd sit around, talk, and eat for an hour - it was our social 'third place' at lunch. Many of my best memories of those years took place in food courts.

    I made this map of the food courts within half a mile walk of the University of Adelaide:

    On cold/hot/rainy days, malls are very useful indoor shortcuts when you're trying to get from A to B. (Sometimes when it was raining and I was without an umbrella, I would purposely walk extra to go through a mall or shopping arcade than having to cross the rain.)

    When I lived in Brisbane, in the geographical centre of the city was the Myer Centre - a 9 story mall - and the basement was also a very busy BRT hub (Queen Street Bus Station). I think it's interesting how a private company capitalised on the really high property value of a transit hub by building a mall on top.

    It worked very well for everyone:
    For the city - it deferred some of the cost of construction, maintenance, security, and cleaning of the station to the mall.
    For the mall - they have a monopoly on the first and last place commuters walk through when they enter and leave the city through that station - a very high flow of pedestrians always walking through.
    For the commuter - It's extremely convenient - you can sit in a food court while waiting for your bus, or go shopping on your way home.

    I find it very dumb when cities build these huge ambitious transit stations - but it'll be a single-use low rise building on a huge plot (an entire block or more) of land, or they build a parking lot around it (in many mid-size American downtowns!) They're not capitalizing on the most expensive land in the city. Also, when your station is bland, it takes the fun out of commuting.

    1. The issue of wasted transit nodes is one I have actually a blog about in my queue (yes, I have a queue of posts I want to make but haven't gotten around to).

      There are indeed quite a few malls in urban areas in the western world, Montréal has some pretty big ones located underground at subway stations. We're even sometimes called the biggest underground city complex in the world.

  2. I'm not sure how it is in Australia or the states, but in Canada I'd say malls mostly will have department stores as anchors, like Sears, Target, The Bay (Canadian) and then clothing/shoe/jewellery/fashion stores with maybe some tech stores, cell phone providers and children's stores plus food courts.

    Other stores are more likely to be in strip malls or power centres in the suburbs. Enclosed shopping malls tend to have higher rents, which are justified by having more pedestrian traffic passing by the stores, so they attract stores like clothing boutiques where people are more likely to make spur-of-the-moment purchases if they notice something interesting or browse multiple stores. For grocery stores or hairdressers or pharmacies, you're not going to go to multiple businesses in one trip to see which has the best offerings. So these stores which benefit less from pedestrian traffic tend to just locate in strip malls which are less expensive. Also, they would be at a disadvantage in shopping malls since these tend to be harder to get to, you might have to park further, and then walk through the mall, so it's a bit inconvenient especially if the store is at the centre of the mall.

    It's mostly just when malls go downmarket that you get businesses like grocery stores in Canada (and probably the US is the same?).

  3. I guess the suburban mall isn't really much different from the urban arcades of the late 19th century. Many newer or renovated suburban malls have an indoor component and an outdoor component as well; the outdoor component of those malls is like the traditional street grid, the interior component is like the arcade, and the anchor stores are basically the multi-story downtown department stores.

    The thing is, newer downtown arcades or malls have performed rather poorly, at least in the US. Cincinnati's Tower Place Mall recently closed, which was a combination of a newer mall and an older Art Deco era arcade in Carew Tower. There's a direct skywalk connection to the downtown Macy's across the street, and some older smaller downtown department stores were incorporated as well as a TJ Maxx. The Macy's remains, as does the arcade, which has more businessmen-oriented stores, but the mall with its food court/atrium, and TJ Maxx have all closed. Circle Center Mall in downtown Indianapolis is also hurting from what I hear, as it depended largely on convention traffic. I even recall Water Tower Place (or maybe one of the other indoor malls?) in Chicago, right in the heart of the Michigan Avenue shopping district has had some issues.

    I guess these downtown malls are just not viable in a mostly car-dominated environment because it's inconvenient to drive downtown from the suburbs to go to a mall, parking isn't free, and what few transit users or people within walking distance may be left aren't as good a demographic. Maybe the Chicago or New York experience is that once you get more transit users and walkability, then the actual streets become so much better that even a downtown mall can't compete with that, so there's just no way for it to really work?

    1. Jeffrey, Philly's Gallery at Market East is a perfect example of what you describe - despite the tens of thousands of passengers passing through it, it just sorta bumbles along with a different revitalization plan every decade, it seems. I noticed that the examples Andrew described seem to have good "porosity" or interaction with surrounding streets, but the Gallery - and most American mall-transit centers - really lack that! The Gallery is a mute, blank, gray monolith... ...if the meager signs on the blank walls didn't indicate the presence of stores within, I would have guessed it was some inert government building. A far cry from the porous - ie. spilling freely into surrounding streets - gallerias and arcades and market halls of the 19th century!

      Nick, that more or less describes suburban American shopping malls too.

  4. Shopping malls are another deep irony of the 20th century, given their inventor and how they turned out (sort of a Frankenstein tale):

  5. In Greater Vancouver, the transformation of shopping malls into urban centers is working quite well. Metrotown was the first and most complete example. Brentwood, Lougheed, Coquitlam, and Oakridge are all undergoing the transformation. Rapid transit access are a major reason for the success in all these cases.

  6. Don't car-oriented power centers still have a legitimate function -- selling goods (such as big electrical appliances, or a family's weekly grocery shop) whose weight or bulk demands that the buyer has a car in which to haul them away?

    1. What do you mean by "legitimate use"? If you mean an use that other commercial areas cannot fulfill, then no, they don't.

      For one, all other kinds of commercial areas are still generally accessible by car for the occasional bulky purchase. But even more than that, for very bulky purchase like TVs, furniture or the like, most stores offer delivery.

      As to groceries, not at all. The idea that you need a car to buy a family's grocery is a false need based on habits picked up due to the relocation of groceries to the periphery. With a neighborhood grocery, people can pick up what they need frequently as the store is quite close to where they live (esp. in TOD developments where groceries are at the station and literally on the way home). People go more often, but buy less each time.

      With supermarkets in far off areas, people reacted to the inconvenient location (even by car it's relatively far) by going there less often and buying in bulk what they need. Supermarkets in these locations offer discounts on bulk purchases to favor them and incite people to go there rather than frequent closer groceries. It looks cheaper... but when one accounts for the cost of the car to go there, to the huge freezer you need to stock all the food bought in bulk and the loss of food that spoils or goes bad before you can get to it, I'm not sure overall it's cheaper.

    2. I didn't mean that other commercial areas cannot fulfil those functions, but merely that they are less well suited to them (similarly, walkable shopping areas are far superior for leisure shopping).

      Sometimes home delivery is inconvenient (for example for people living alone, or for married couples where both husband and wife work full-time -- both of which mean the home is unlikely to be occupied during delivery hours). In fact I've commonly seen defenders of car-oriented development claim that its opponents are hankering after a supposed golden age when most women didn't go out to work.

    3. In Southeast Asia, stores and streets are very busy during the day, but most everything closes after sundown. All the appliance and furniture stores offer delivery, usually included in the price but sometimes for a dollar or two more. Guess when they deliver? In the evening, after dark, or early in the morning before rush hour. This keeps the trucks from getting stuck in traffic, and it means someone will be home to pick up the delivery. It's the same way that pedestrian areas in European cities schedule deliveries to the shops.

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