Evolution and Re-Calibration of the Typical Suburban Retail Environment

by John Dempsey, ASLA, and Daniel Straub, ASLA

North Dekalb Mall, North Decatur, Georgia / image: Casey Lovegrove on Unsplash

The retail environment in America has a complex history as it includes a broad range of activities from the small-scale local storefront in an urban neighborhood to the large-scale activity of a suburban shopping mall. This article focuses on the complex changes associated with the suburban shopping malls and their impact on urban framework and design, and draws on relative comparisons to the history and relative success of traditional main street retail as well.

Framing the American Dream: Auto Ownership, Mobility, and Suburban Growth

During the period after World War II, factors such as increased manufacturing, the GI Bill, and federal loan programs facilitated the migration to single-family homes and private automobiles. Since its inception in the 1950s, American suburban malls became an emblematic part of the booming expansion of the geographic extent of large-scale suburbia. This transformation was in part made possible by the National Interstate and Defense Highway Act (1956). The highway investments permitted a massive road-building program to support access to inexpensive land that led to increased opportunities to build large-scale subdivisions. Many of the new subdivisions required easy access to goods, services, and entertainment so they typically included commercial mall development or were located near new suburban malls. Essentially, the suburban mall became the new town square to eat, shop, gather, and converse.

However, not all American citizens participated equally. The mass exodus of primarily white households from cities to the outlying suburbs revealed inequitable prosperity. The new suburban communities were legally structured to limit the emigration of poor and non-white residents by drafting restrictive zoning practices that would prevent lower middle-class Americans from purchasing single-family houses in the suburbs. As a consequence, the mass movement of middle-income households from many inner-city neighborhoods encouraged the similar movement of many businesses to suburban locations. This resulted in a major transformation of many cities anchored by main streets or downtown retail.

A Brief History of the U.S. Mall

Leading the transformation of the suburban retail environment in America was Austrian-born architect and urban planner Victor Gruen, who pioneered America’s first indoor enclosed mall—the 1956 Southdale Mall in Edina, MN, a suburb of the Twin Cities. Victor Gruen intended the planned development to be a functioning mixed-use community with commerce, art, and entertainment—but his vision was only rarely implemented.

Since that time in the 1950s and 1960s, approximately 1,200 shopping centers have been developed throughout America mostly focused on retail. The enclosed suburban mall was a one-stop destination for convenience. Retail outlets can now be accessed virtually anywhere as developers have adjusted to the pressures of e-commerce and the need for smaller-scale “bricks and mortar” retail opportunities.

The suburban mall traditionally was also designed to take advantage of the major transportation changes of building new highways and the adoption of personal vehicles. As a result, walking, biking, and transit can be unsafe and unpleasant experiences in many suburban mall locations. Essentially, the suburban mall that was once envisioned as the new town plaza has contributed to the increase in suburban sprawl and to the demise of the urban environment.

Re-emergence from the Suburban Retail Experiment

Today, suburban malls are struggling to keep up with the changes that have been introduced to the urban patterns and lifestyles by e-commerce, delivery services, and mixed-use urban centers that are connected with a variety of activities. While downtowns have always been hubs for the exchange of goods, culture, knowledge, and ideas, the changes resulting from suburban sprawl have caused many cities and developers to rethink how they plan for the retail environment. For centuries, city infrastructure had a natural dynamic and vibrant stage where the various functions were artfully woven and urban retail thrived. But the shift from an integrated system of transportation to social and economic life occurred when the public realm emphasized traffic throughput over access.

With the advent of online shopping, an array of new technological advances, and the customer’s desire for a more varied, rousing, and authentic experience—the suburban environment is also shifting.

Since the turn of the century, if not before, indoor malls are starting to pivot from a purely retail environment to a more fine-grained mix of uses by adding housing, hotel, civic uses, healthcare services, and collaborative workspaces, with access to multi-modal transportation systems, facilities, and networks. The re-emergence from an auto-centric and single-use site to a mixed- use environment will be incremental. To be successful in transitioning these suburban environments, there are several changes in perspective that should be recognized on a given site:

New Functionality
Anchor retail boxes are pivoting from enclosed malls and shifting to buildings and spaces that can be repurposed for a variety of functions. From e-commerce storage facilities, entertainment venues, service-oriented health and public uses, or flexible collaborative workspaces, these large floor plans provide an opportunity. The new function of these facilities should focus on the needs and desires of the entire community.

Enhanced Connectivity
For the revitalization of a suburban mall to be successful, people need to be able to access the development through a variety of means. The suburban mall should act as a major multi-modal transportation node, connecting the rest of the city by sidewalks, trails, and public transit. Connectivity to the surrounding neighborhoods is also vital. Infilling parking lots, adding trails, and adding pedestrian infrastructure can help reweave the mall back into the neighborhood environment.

Streetscape Activation
Turning the mall inside out is a way to create visibility and activity in the community. Adding access, signage, and storefronts to the streetscape can create a more welcoming environment. Expanding the footprint and reimagining parking lots can also bring activity closer to surrounding neighborhoods.

Reimagined Landscape
Transitioning the empty surface parking area into natural and resilient landscapes provides visitors a place to play, relax, and get outside while utilizing the facilities the mall provides. Parks and open spaces should be actively programmed to equitably distribute access to the green environment.

Diversity of Activity
The sole retail environment is no longer sustainable with advances in technology and changing consumer preferences. Incorporate a diversity of activities into the existing large scale retail fabric so a variety of activities can take place. This allows people to live, work, and play, and it can address gaps in community infrastructure.

We need to create a cohesive environment that excites and entices people to not only visit but to stay and enjoy the environment provided. Throughout the large-scale fabric of a mall, the interior and exterior elements should be redefined to create identity through design of all elements.

Urban Design Framework
And most importantly, these revitalization efforts require coherent urban design strategy. Plan within and beyond its boundaries in order to promote and guide physical and functional integration through type and scale of new uses, densities, and uninterrupted pedestrian networks.

In conclusion, there are many changes in perspective that planners and designers will need to recognize to successfully address the latest “paradigm shift” in the suburban retail environment. Currently, suburban malls across the U.S. are undergoing changes to fit community needs, and landscape architects and urban designers have a critical role in being part of the thought processes shaping these environments.

Join us for a Zoom coffee chat on the “Evolution and Re-Calibration of the Typical Suburban Retail Environment” on Friday, June 16, at 1:00 p.m. (Eastern). Bring notes, ideas, and thoughts on these topics and more for how landscape architecture is at the forefront of these changing suburban environments.

Our next article will walk through a few examples of how the suburban mall is changing throughout the U.S. Stay tuned for more from ASLA’s Urban Design Professional Practice Network (PPN)!

This post was edited by Urban Design PPN leaders Lauren Patterson, ASLA, Sara Hadavi, ASLA, and Taner Özdil, ASLA.

John Dempsey, ASLA, is a Senior Landscape Architect and Urban Designer with a unique blend of professional practice in design and planning, streetscape improvements, and non-motorized transportation projects. John has direct experience working on a wide range of on- and off-street bicycle facilities, bicycle parking design, streetscape and complete streets design, feasibility studies, and urban design projects. His passions for landscape architecture and urban design allow him to effectively communicate design intent throughout the entire design process, from concept level to project implementation.

Daniel Straub, PLA, ASLA, AIP, LEED AP, is an accomplished urban planner, licensed landscape architect, and accredited LEED professional with over thirty-five years of project experience in master planning, streetscape design and green infrastructure, urban design, and landscape architecture in both the public and private sectors. He concentrates on bridging the gap between large scale planning/visioning efforts, or concept design, and the more detail-scale design solutions that can be implemented, are cost effective, and that meet sustainability criteria. He currently works with the National Park Service on special projects including cultural landscape projects.

Dan has served as the professional representative to the Urban Design Advisory Committee in Alexandria, the Executive Committee of MDASLA (Secretary and Treasurer), and as a member of AIA/Cleveland-Regional Urban Design Assistance Team. He has also served as a volunteer at the Alexandria Seaport Foundation, the American Horticulture Society, Design DC, and currently is a member of the committee to Save River Farm, which has received awards from the Virginia Garden Club and the Potomac Chapter of ASLA. He previously won an AIA Urban Design Competition for the 9th Street Mall in Miami with a longtime colleague from Houston.

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