by John Dempsey, ASLA, and Daniel Straub, ASLA
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.