Shopping Malls

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"Shopping mall" and "mall" are terms used in common parlance to refer to just about any kind of sizable shopping center, but more precisely they identify a comprehensively planned and fully integrated retail development planned, operated, and generally owned by a single business entity that employs a system of pedestrian ways as its principal circulation spine. Most shopping malls contain at least fifty stores; they are usually anchored by one or more department stores and are intended to draw customers on a regular basis from a large surrounding area. Well before a mall became a key component of such complexes, shopping centers were conceived as alternative retail environments that would attract shoppers because of their amenities as well as the goods and services they purveyed. The foremost pioneer of this concept, Kansas City real estate developer J. C. Nichols, enjoyed nationwide influence through the example of his Country Club Plaza, constructed incrementally over several decades beginning in 1922. Abundant free parking, wide sidewalks, outdoor sculpture, ornate buildings, fashion shows, parades, and holiday pageants were among the features that attracted widespread attention and helped set the tone for shopping centers over the next generation.

The idea of having a pedestrian mall as a spine for shopping centers originated in the 1930s among advocates of reform in the design of residential areas who believed that this inward-looking configuration, which separated shoppers from the parking lot, would reinvigorate social intercourse and a sense of community that purportedly was lost on Main Streets with the widespread use of motor vehicles. In these early plans, the mall was, in fact, a large open green space surrounded by sidewalks and conducive to informal play by children as well as perambulation by adults.

Not until the late 1940s, however, did the reformers' ideal become successfully fused with the retail developers' imperatives to gain an edge in the new and highly competitive market at the rapidly expanding urban periphery. Among the foremost reasons why pragmatic businessmen began to embrace the mall was that a controlled and ostensibly leisurely setting fostered longer visits, greater circulation, and thus greater sales. At a time when the traditional urban environment was losing its appeal among a new generation of consumers, the neat, but relaxed, landscaped outdoor environment of the mall seemed a conspicuous improvement.

By the mid-1950s, the leading advocate of the shopping mall was the Los Angeles–based architect Victor Gruen. Gruen painted an engaging picture of the mall as possessing the vibrancy of street life he had known in his native Austria. The mall proper could support vendors whose wares complement that of the enclosed stores. The mall should be a gathering place of many kinds. Like Nichols a quarter century earlier, he envisioned the shopping center as a place for special events as well as impromptu exchange. Arguably Gruen's greatest contribution to the design vocabulary of such complexes was a fully enclosed mall, where the ensemble was structured and serviced as a single building, the storefronts functioning merely as partitions, rather than a cluster of buildings around an open space. This configuration proved efficient to heat and cool as well as to maintain and protect. The enclosed mall was first realized at Southdale (1953–1956), outside Minneapolis, Minnesota, in response to the region's climatic extremes. While Southdale attracted widespread attention, the concept was slow to gain acceptance among developers and retailers alike. Once its economic strengths were demonstrated, however, the enclosed mall gained increasing favor, becoming the industry standard by the mid-1960s in virtually all parts of the country.

With a climate-controlled environment, the mall proper could be more fully exploited for the array of uses Gruen promoted. The space outside the stores was hospitable irrespective of heat, cold, or inclement weather. Consuming food and beverages, talking with friends, sitting to rest or read a newspaper, window shopping, or performing any other outdoor activity associated with a retail district in ideal conditions became part of the year-round regime. Cart vendors could more readily peddle their wares. Events associated with holidays could be easily staged, as could raffles and other endeavors organized for charitable purposes. Shoppers could linger and take in the scene. They also could circulate easily throughout the premises and, more often than not, make additional purchases.

The multiplication of shopping malls from the mid-1950s through the 1960s occurred in direct response to continued population growth on the metropolitan periphery. Swelling consumer demand abated previous fears that regions would become oversaturated with these expansive complexes; again and again new shopping malls were constructed in places that had been largely undeveloped only a few years before. By 1960, the largest urban areas had two and frequently more examples; over the next decade, new shopping malls were realized to a much greater extent; collectively they now formed a ring around major U.S. cities. The 1960s were indeed the pivotal period of change when, despite concerted efforts to counter the trend, retailing in the city center became clearly subordinate to, even marginalized by, comparable activity near the perimeter. The mall became a surrogate for downtown—the principal destination for the majority of upper-to-middle-income households.

The shopping mall also began to proliferate beyond the metropolis during the next decade. Increasingly, malls were developed on the edge of small cities and even towns to serve a network of concentrated settlements and rural areas in between. Many of these examples lacked the size and array of leading stores found in major metropolitan areas, but were nonetheless embraced by consumers as a preferable alternative to established retail centers in their respective communities. As a result, shopping in the mall became a widespread American experience.

Concurrently, significant changes occurred in the design of shopping malls serving major cities. Following the example of the Galleria in the Post Oak district of Houston (1968–1970), malls contained two or three levels, with circulation ringing open, skylit wells. This configuration allowed many more retail units to occupy a given ground area, responding to still rising consumer demand and escalating land prices. The multilevel arrangement was acceptable, even appreciated by consumers because of the dramatic, airy ambience afforded by abundant vistas and glazed, arched ceilings. Opening the interior to natural light also greatly reduced electricity costs, a factor that became decisive following the first oil embargo in 1971. As the name of the prototypical Houston complex implied, the model for this form of shopping mall was the grand shopping arcade, or galleria, that became a hallmark of many European city centers during the second half of the nineteenth century. For the first time, the mall began to evoke urban density and with it the potential for greater sensorial stimulation. Few sequels included anything comparable to the Houston Galleria's ice skating rink, but many designs were crafted to further a sense of visual excitement in the course of moving through the various parts of these enormous retail settings.

Perhaps even more than its proponents intended, the shopping mall evolved into an important social center. Its draw stemmed not so much from special events as from the fact that probably no other place on the metropolitan periphery was so conducive to interaction among numerous groups of people. Adolescents found the mall to be an incomparable place to sample the goods advertising so aggressively portrayed, but also to see and be seen by their peers. Parents tended to regard the mall as a safe haven for offspring too restless to stay at home. Elderly men and women also found the mall an agreeable place to rendezvous with friends and to make new acquaintances without spending much money or making advanced commitments. Many ages in between still came to the mall primarily to shop but found the scene appealing. Aside from sports arenas, houses of worship, and amusement parks, the shopping mall became one of the few places where sizable numbers of people congregated on a regular basis. Unlike those other places, going to the mall required neither an admission fee nor participation in a prescribed ritual. The mall offered complete freedom —to socialize or remain anonymous, to indulge or abstain, to circulate extensively or proceed to a single destination.

From a management perspective, the mall as a social center was normally conducive to greater sales, but it could also be a source of conflict. Demonstrations, solicitations, and disorderly activities of all kinds have always been cast as unacceptable behavior. Mall owners see their premises much like a store, in which the scope of acceptable conduct is quite limited. Others have countered, with some concurrence from the courts, that the mall is in effect a public place and that legitimate forms of expression not related to business are warranted. But irrespective of legality, the mall has never become an important staging ground for public events or public disruptions. The mall's enduring appeal is as a place for unstructured human interaction—in the purchase of goods and in the pursuit of socializing. In the modern consumer world, both are mutually reinforcing forms of recreation and leisure.

See also: Commercialization of Leisure, Shopping, Teenage Leisure Trends


Cohen, Lizabeth. "From Town Center to Shopping Center: The Reconfiguration of Community Marketplaces in Postwar America." American Historical Review 101 (October 1996): 1050–1081.

Gillette, Howard. "The Evolution of the Planned Shopping Center in Suburb and City." Journal of the American Planning Association 51 (Autumn 1985): 449–460.

Jacobs, Jerry. The Mall: An Attempted Escape from Everyday Life. Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press, 1984.

Kowinski, William Severine. The Malling of America. New York: William Monroe and Company, 1985.

Longstreth, Richard. City Center to Regional Mall: Architecture, the Automobile, and Retailing in Los Angeles, 1920–1950. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1997.

Zepp, Ira G., Jr. The New Religious Image of Urban America: The Shopping Mall as Ceremonial Center. Westminster, Md.: Christian Classics, 1986. Revised edition, Niwot, Colo.: University Press of Colorado, 1997.

Richard Longstreth