Imagining the United States Without Shopping Malls

If I were to ask you to list symbols of American consumerism, I bet the words “shopping mall” would come to mind pretty quickly. And that’s because for the past 5 decades, shopping malls have been a dominant feature of the retail scene in a country that has more retail space than most. In 2009, NPR reported that the U.S. had 20 square feet of retail space per person (almost 7x as much as the country who came in 2nd, Sweden).

But is all this set to change? Witold Rybczynski makes the bold assertion in his book Makeshift Metropolis that in 25 years, many shoppers will have never stepped foot in a shopping mall. While recent reports do indicate that they’re on the decline, this is surely a bit of an exaggeration on his part. Nevertheless, it is interesting to re-envision a world without them.

Shopping malls first rose to popularity as the American population shifted to the suburbs, becoming an increasingly autocentric culture seeking greater efficiency and convenience in their lives. At suburban malls, parking generally comes at no cost, and comes in the form of expansive street level lots (i.e. “dead zones”) that intimidate even the most fearless pedestrians. As such, a majority of shoppers have no choice but to drive.