March 19, 2014

My alarm went off yesterday morning. As I grabbed for my phone to silence the alarm, I quickly scrolled through Twitter, as I usually do when I first wake up, to get skim over the headlines of the previous 24 hours. This one particular tweet stood out to me;

A mega mall is the closest thing you can get to a traditional city in the United States? I followed the link through to the Yahoo article.

In an interesting turn of events - despite reports of big box stores closing, of smaller malls loosing their anchor and dying a sad death - the regional megamall is thriving as ever;

Why? And what does this have to do with it being the closest thing we have to a traditional city in the United States?

If you watch the video in the Yahoo article, I found it interesting when the presenter on the left described his experience of malls growing up;

I grew up in the suburbs, that's where we went - because there wasn't anywhere else to go.

The presenter on the right replied that megamalls are going to survive because people will continue to want a place to 'hang out' at in the suburbs. From kids that want to play arcade games, to the elderly people that just want to get out of the house - the mall represents an important third place for the community. It is a place that is lively and vibrant, that you otherwise do not experience in the suburbs.

So how is it, as Nathan Lewis put it in his tweet, that the megamall is like a traditional city?

To put it simply, walking through a mall;

Is not very different to walking through a vibrant city street in Europe;

Or Asia;

Or anywhere else. Whether you are outside or inside is just a technicality. Plenty of cities have covered streets;

And plenty of malls are outdoors;

But, the experience of being in a place that is human-scale, full of activity, and is 100% place is the same.

The Mall of America for instance, has some 500 or so retailers, a movie cinema, an amusement park, an aquarium, and is also the busiest transit hub in Minnesota. The megamall is essentially an indoor town - and one of the most walkable and urban places in the entire country. You may have to drive to get to the megamall, but once you are in the megamall, you only have to park your car once and spend the rest of your day completely immersed in a well laid out, pedestrian environment. This is not very different to someone that lives in the country and has to drive into their nearest large town, but once they are there, they can make a day of shopping, entertainment, and exploring the urban environment.

If we built a megamall and incorporated residents and some kind of non-retail industry, we would essentially have a town.

The best walkable environments I have visited in the United States have been shopping malls, college campuses, and amusement parks. They are places designed from the ground up to be experienced on foot, to accomidate thousands of people streaming through them;

They even often offer city-like services - they maintain parks, their own security team, and many even run their own transit systems - like the famous monorail system at the Walt Disney World Resort;

Would it really be such a bad idea for the American cities of the future to be planned by mall architects and the like - people that have experience in designing places that are human-scale and optimized to be experienced on foot?

A lot of people will scoff at this idea - as malls are privately owned and master planned - while cities are supposedly bottom-up decentralized systems. But in reality, there is not much of a difference. While a megamall may dictate where the food vendors go to form a food court, where the cinema and department stores go, and where the small vendors should be located - a city does exactly the same, dictating through zoning and traffic projections where people may live, or where the next big box stores may build.

At a high level, our cities already plan what goes where. Our cities pick and choose which specific retailer, office campus, or factory to attract and subsidize. We dictate the layout of our buildings from the spacing between our houses to how tall that garage extension can be. Both malls and cities provide utilities, corridors/streets, security, cleaning, and other essential services. Malls charge rent to cover the cost of these services, while cities charge tax. Our cities are no less master planned than a mall - build a mall with accommodations, a school, and some non-retail industry and malls and cities would be indistinguishable other than by their name.

What would it look like if we had mall architects plan our cities like malls?

Honestly, it does not look too bad - and it would probably be a lot more financially profitable than most of the cities we build today. If you think this is crazy, it is less crazy than if, at the turn of the 20th century, I told you that we should build cities where everyone is promised their own miniature European mansions complete with detached country gardens, where everyone requires a car just to get to work, school, or their nearest shop.

Back to Nathan's tweet - "Megamall = closest you can get to a Traditional City in US" - I agree with him. We need to build our cities more like malls. Or even university campuses - I would love it if my walk to work was a stroll through this every day;