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7 Ways The Mall Solved Problems Through Time

Updated: Nov 14, 2023

In urban planning circles, it’s vogue to talk about malls. How they’re dead: the rise of e-commerce, the spread of Covid-19, and their accelerated demise.

I tend to be an optimist. Will the mall come back? How might the mall come back? Is there a pattern through time that might inform what’s next? What even is a mall? Are we talking about the same thing?

Love them or hate them, since the mall was invented, they have been solving problems for people, businesses, and communities.


Broke Royalty


One of the first malls was created in 1784. Louis Philippe II, the Duke of Orleans, was having some financial difficulties. In an attempt to get some additional income he opened part of the family palace, “Palais-Royal”, to have shops and restaurants open to the public.

It’s a brilliant strategy and reminiscent of the recent rise of co-working. If you divide your large expensive space into a series of smaller spaces it becomes more affordable. This affordability can attract smaller businesses which will all benefit from the network effects of being located near one another.

Théâtre du Palais-Royal. Source: Wikipedia user - Moonik


As sections of the Palais were transformed for shopping and entertainment it became the center of 18th-century Parisian economic and social life. Not everyone could afford what was being sold but the palace created a place where people of all classes could be seen and mingle.


Businesses looking to diversify


Early Japanese department stores, “depātos”, were built by railroad companies at the sites of terminals and stations. This is different from the airports of today with their Best Buy vending machines. The stores weren’t selling things for your trip, they were selling things for where you were going next — including groceries, flowers, clothes, etc.

The business model is a classic — let’s get rent from the commercial tenants at our stations which then bring more people to our trains because they can grab groceries on the way home.

Creating this “flywheel” of growth helps build multiple income streams for the owner which feeds from each other helping build a moat against the competition. Seibu and Hankyu are some examples of these places still in existence today (though they have separated from their railroad forefathers).


Fewer people walking


As the automobile began to grow in popularity in the States, developers began experimenting with ways to accommodate the new form of transportation.

J.C Nichols, an American in Kansas City, Missouri, began experimenting with suburban development and having a shopping center at the city’s center. In 1923, the first shopping center to accommodate shoppers arriving by car was opened.


Country Club Plaza. Source: Wikipedia user - charvex


A quick aside - It blows my mind, that less than 100 years ago, developers weren’t considering automobiles.

The same principles apply here with businesses looking to be in proximity to one another. As a business, if I believe my customers are more likely to have a car, I’m more inclined to participate in a development like this.


We can’t control the weather


As electricity, windows, and air conditioning were invented and improved, so was the experience at the mall. As people continued to increase their driving in climate-controlled cars, their appetite for walking around in the elements decreased.

Victor Gruen began experimenting with commercial concepts. He enjoyed a lot of success and is credited with completing over 30 mall projects in the United States. Today, one of his core principles of design lives on — The Gruen Transfer. He was so successful his nickname was, “the Father of the Mall”.

Malcolm Gladwell has a great article about Victor Gruen in the New Yorker.


No more main street


Gruen wasn’t fond of his nickname and he was even less fond of how his projects were affecting downtown cores. A new problem had developed. All the activity was leaving downtown and focused on auto-centric malls.

In 1957, Gruen was hired by the city of Kalamazoo to help revitalize their downtown with a “new” mall concept, the walking mall. The first of its kind in the United States, though it was almost 175 years after Palais-Royal opened its doors.


The Kalamazoo Mall — 2019. Source: Author


As Gruen worked to reverse the tide, other developers were putting priority on considerations like parking, motorist circulation, and redirecting highways to support the tenants of their malls.


Our downtowns aren’t as vibrant


All that parking and those highways had an adverse effect on our downtowns. They’re covered in pavement and people are going through them. The point isn’t to stay.

In 1976, Faneuil Hall in Boston, Massachusetts, was “one of the first projects of its kind”. Developers asked themselves, “How can we save this old building?”

The project resulted in an old building in the downtown core being saved bringing with it a collective of shops, offices, and restaurants into one place for the citizens of Boston to walk, shop, and explore.

Sound familiar?


The pattern


Rather than royalty, our urban areas are in the same spot. They’re broke and looking for ways to attract businesses and build a vibrant community.

Shopping centers through the ages, the bazaars of the Middle East, arcades of Europe, Main St. and the Malls of America have all focused on this same business pattern. We’re better off together. We’ll have more success together.


Ultimately, the pattern, the problem we’re trying to solve, is how can we bring people and businesses closer, create additional value, and build off of network effects.


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