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Mall Walkers: The Suburban Exercisers Keeping America Wholesome – The Atlantic

His vision didn’t pan out. The typical American mall became, as CityLab writer Mark Byrnes put it in 2013, “a formulaic collection of fully enclosed space occupied mostly by national retailers and surrounded by seas of surface parking.” Gruen, in fact, visited one of his old shopping malls late in life and pronounced himself in “severe emotional shock” at the sprawl around it and the developers’ clear profit motive.“There’s this tension the mall has always had. It’s always wanted to be this space where anyone feels like they’re welcome, but only so long as they’re not impeding the flow of commerce,” says Mathias Crawford, a PhD candidate at Stanford who is studying community architecture in postwar America.


But as online shopping has in many ways rendered malls irrelevant—one-third of America’s malls are estimated to be dead or dying—developers are working to redefine them. It’s not clear what exactly they will become, but it appears non-shopping activities will play an integral role in their attempted revival. “You’re seeing condo complexes in malls, along with more restaurants, outdoor spaces and movie theaters,” says Belza. “They use the term ‘lifestyle centers.’”


Gyms and fitness centers are increasingly being incorporated into shopping malls as anchor tenants because they are now more likely to draw regular visitors than big-box retailers or department stores. The Washington Post profiled Westfield Mall in Bethesda, Maryland, last year and noted that the food court underwent a redesign to make it more of a place where “you might camp out with your laptop or linger with friends.”


As developers figure out what a new mall is and can be, they may find that mall walkers and their resistance to commerce are perfectly in line with their new values. After all, Victor Gruen would embrace them if he were alive today: In the ‘50s, at the peak of his career, he described his utopian vision of the postwar American metropolis to a New Yorker writer. Gruen said he hoped that malls would evoke Old World Europe, where people would show up just to stroll and socialize, even when the stores were closed. “The chief means of travel will be walking,” he said. “Nothing like walking for peace of mind.”


Mall Walkers: The Suburban Exercisers Keeping America Wholesome – The Atlantic

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