March 12, 2018

How To Use Malls When Stores Fade Away

Many urban and suburban planners will likely go into cardiac arrest when they seem to ‘quickly discover’ that most of the mega-malls they approved for suburbs struggle for survival.

My prediction is that most malls won’t survive the growing strength and dominance of online shopping. It’s really not a ‘wild’ prediction. Here’s a story from the CBC pointing to a number of reasons why ‘the mall’ will fall.

As the article points out, Amazon still only accounts for about 8% of American retail sales per year and when they double this number and then quadruple it and eventually monopolize the entire retail infrastructure, so many slow movers will just simply shut their doors instead of trying to compete.

(As an aside: WOW. Jeff Bezos is the richest person alive with just 8% of the market. What’s he going to be like when Amazon runs all things retail?)

If you’re not sure about this prediction (ie. the growth of online transactions vs in-person activity), think about your own shopping habits.  How many transactions did you make online within the last couple of years?  My guess is that it’s been increasing.  My other guess is that many of these transactions were spread across a number of different sites.

If you’re still not sure, think about the various businesses that have attempted this over the last hundred years or so – Eaton’s, Simpsons, Hudson Bay – but failed because so many of the proper tools weren’t in place.

Until now. Example: the LCBO just hired out their web fulfillment service to Ottawa’s Shopify.

When I think of my own personal habits, I sit down at a computer, browse for what I think I ‘need’, maybe even research it a little more (online) and then ultimately buy it on Amazon. Of course, I attempted to create a whole online business that revolves around alcohol purchase, but it’s folly to try to get between suppliers who live on VERY thin margins and a government monopoly.

(Again, as an aside, I know I’m right about, as the volume of online purchases of alcohol in the US and UK continue to grow, but are stagnant in Canada because of retail ‘confusion’ that’s spread by government monopolies).

It’s not that I LOVE Amazon.  Instead, I appreciate how far and how quickly they’ve advanced their business model in the last couple of years, leaving everyone else choking on their dust, like Wile E. Coyote standing in a cloud of smoke, seconds before he plummets to the earth (look it up kids).

All that said, let’s return to the conclusion and prediction: within the next 10 years, we’ll have millions of square feet of available space abandoned by companies that once deftly plucked cash from the wallets of wandering shoppers. Consumers will balance out their mall madness with luxurious ‘stay-at-home’ convenience.

What will we do with all that space?

Here are my top 10 suggestions for how to use the space:


Retool the infrastructure and install renewable energy units. Be it solar, wind, geothermal or some other way of creating relatively inert and non-earth destroying energy forms, they will all be used to support the other recommendations. A province like Ontario can’t afford to keep building failed mega-projects that no one wants like the giant wind turbines that dot the coast of Lake Huron. Instead, smaller scale, neighbour-owned projects are where we should put our … well, energy.

The World Economic Forum just released an update showing that the vast majority of energy generated for electric vehicles is still based largely on coal, gas and other carbon-based sources.

This has to change and ubiquitous energy production from renewables will be the catalyst.  More passive forms (solar and even wind) require space and what space to acquire than that which has been abandoned by mega-mall retailers?

Restructure parking, Part I

Dig up the lots. The vast majority of the space used at any of the mega-malls is not actual shopping space, but parking areas. Flat, useless parking areas. This needs to change.  In London, Ontario (where I currently live), there are dozens of parking areas bigger than many of the suburbs that surround them. These parking areas cover some of the world’s most productive and fertile land. All we’d have to do is dig down a couple of feet and we’d be back to producing quality food for ourselves.

Restructure parking, Part II

High density housing. Those areas that we can’t resuscitate should be converted to high-density, ‘build up not out’ housing with a smaller square footage for the actual living space. As humans, we need to return to the simple idea that a small family really doesn’t need much more than 1,000-1,200 square feet of living space … assuming all of the other shared amenities are within reach.

Restructure parking, Part III

OK. Some people are going to still insist on having cars, so parking lots should be multi-level as a starting point. Then, we prioritize spots according to ‘effort’: after accounting for accessibility needs (ie. elderly, handicapped, expecting mothers, etc), spaces for small cars are closer to doors, elevators and other points of access. Next comes spaces for green cars (ie. those that are electric). You get the idea. Pick-up trucks running on diesel? You don’t even get a spot. Sorry. Is there a possibility that this might be called ‘racism’ based on size of truck and level of willful destruction of the planet? I suppose. Maybe I have to dial it back just to avoid tossing sand in the face of the Trumpsters.

Food, water and other basic needs

So now we’re into the basic Maslov-type pyramid of needs. We have to be able to feed ourselves and strive for independence. This means using big parts of the empty malls for growing food all year round. The renewable energy that we produce would ensure that we’d be able to fuel greenhouses and water treatment. Sure, we can allocate some of the space for cannabis (the hot agrarian topic of the day), but let’s focus first on keeping ourselves healthy and well fed, especially when we have the munchies from all that weed.

Grey water & rain water conversion facilities

Honestly, this kind of thinking (ie. use and re-use of water) kind of hurts my brain (as it surely does with most other average folks), but we have to get exponentially better at respecting our clean, fresh water. No more 10 minute showers. No more water lawns for the next time the Queen visits. No more vast, empty pools clorinated beyond reasonable post-Ypres levels. Just a simple use and re-use of what we collect and store.

There are now indoor farms that use 95% LESS water than conventional farming methods. And … they’re operating indoors.

Incredible. Why are we waiting?

Markets: Swap, Trade, Used, Food

OK … astute readers will see through my mistake which I’ll admit to here: if everyone is shopping online (like I said they would) why would they bother ‘going to the market’ to pick up new or used goods?

One of the miscalculations I make is the intensity and speed by which the mass market will change their behaviours. I’ve been wrong before and I’m happy to admit that I’m wrong again, so the excuse I’ll make is that people will still crave the noise and buzz of a market.

This is why the St. Lawrence Market has been officially declared the world’s best market.

I’m simply suggesting that the content being sold may shift to different ranges of products as opposed to a single redistributor of Made-In-China goods.

Recycling / compost

This idea strikes at the very heart of NIMBYism.

Why would someone want a composting centre right beside their regular shopping market?

Or would people feel comfortable with recyclable materials that may contain toxins and other unpleasant residual effects oozing into their food production?

Probably not. But I’m also not suggesting absolutes in terms of ‘everything in one place’ mentality. Maybe one of the mega-malls that exists in the south-east end of a given city be the recycling centre, where the 6 or 7 others becomes more integrated and mixed use.

Entertainment. Fun parks. Performance Locations.

Heading up the Maslov pyramid, we have the answer to the question ‘how do we entertain ourselves’?

As I mentioned, London is moving ahead in two unique ways:

And ‘performance locations’? I’ll put it out there: the world needs more auditoriums than parking lots.

Small scale manufacturing. Maker spaces.

As North America starts down the path that Europeans have taken and eventually intensify sprawling communities, the demand for shared space will increase.

Not every house will have a wood working shop or music studio or swimming pool or gym.

Shared space will maximize the use of vacant space while also expanding hobby and career options for people with time on their hands.

‘Maker spaces’ have been concepts on the periphery for some time and need a push to the middle so people can appreciate the opportunity to build stuff, make things and possibly even create a market for their output.

For more on maker spaces, read here.

Wrapping up …

I know … it’ll be a LONG time before a lot of changes I predict will com true, but I’ve tried to demonstrate that some of the concepts are already creeping into mainstream lifestyle choices.

The days of mega malls are numbered and it’s inevitable that we’ll have to start thinking about what to do with all of space.

The ultimate goal of all of these suggestions is to install a sense of community and minimize the amount of driving that people do while also adding more substance to their lives and support for their immediate surroundings. It would push people to think in terms of closer, tighter-knit and dependent economies while also pushing for a greater sense of independence.

What do you see happening with this space in the future? Did I miss anything?

Categories: Books I'll Never Write , Random Thoughts , Things Are Good


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