Beat Your Strip Malls Into Greenspace: A Suggestion for Failing Suburban Markets

vacant Revco Heritage Square
Image by iwasteela via Flickr

I used to work for a mutual fund company, but I’d never say I’m an expert on the economy.  If you want to wax nostalgic with me about a time when money markets were paying more than .01 percent, I can handle that.  If you want to talk about Series 6 and Series 63 licensing exams, I’m sorely out of date.  That said, I retain the basics, and I happened to leave the industry just as everything started to crumble.

I say “started” because everything’s still crumbling.  I’m no Amartya Sen, but we Americans have the long historical memory of the Great Depression always at our backs, and while most of us don’t really understand everything that’s been going wrong, our gut index is pretty savvy.  We know when times are bad and we know when they’re not getting any better.

In the mid and late 70s, just before I was born, there was an energy crisis, a high Misery Index, inflation, bad geopolitical situations and, so I’m told by the media and everyone over 50, a prevailing and understandable emotional malaise.  People were worried, afraid, out of work,  strapped.

In 2011, the gut index tells a similar story.  We know, deep down, that we’re still in an energy crisis and will be until renewable fuel becomes a nationwide efficiency and standard.  The Misery Index is officially back in political discourse.  The economy is abysmal, the world stage is a mess (with some hopeful things still happening), and people are worried, afraid, out of work, busted.

Once upon a time, when main street was “white washed windows and vacant stores,” we had the luxury of telling ourselves that even if our mid-sized industrial cities failed, the wealth of the burgeoning suburbs would save us.   Fail our cities did, and so grew the suburbs, over green space, agricultural space, water tables, cemeteries.  So grew our commuter corridors, our pollution emissions, our traffic patterns, and BMIs.

Take a look around your local suburban strip mall.  Witness all the empty store fronts.  Consider all the tier two stories at your local mall.  If your gut’s like mine, it’s telling you things are getting worse.

I’m not an alarmist, but it seems patently obvious to me that the era of suburban mercantilism is over.  And, like most forms of mercantilism, the suburban boom of the last 20 years was, itself, a bubble.  On the frontier line of our industrial cities, townships had wide open space to develop and overdevelop.  The businesses leaving our strip malls like they once left our downtowns are never coming back, that is, there will never again be the faux demand for that many grocery stories, hair cutteries, pet shops, Subways, and Chinese buffets.  We simply don’t need that many Wal-Marts or Targets or Sears.

What to do now with these vacant spaces?

Knock a few walls down and mix open space in with surviving retail.  Plant flowers, get benches.  Make butterfly gardens and bike racks.  Young people drive the economy, and young people like being outside.  We like having access to options.  We’d love to sit in the grass with our kids while our spouses run errands elsewhere on the strip.  We like eating outside, learning outside, shopping outside.  Tell us that your micro-greens in the suburbs are part of your commitment to sustainability, and even if we don’t believe you, we’ll use them.  What goes better next to a Petsmart than a dog park?  Why not put tables and chairs and umbrellas between Subway and the pizza place?  How about some of those lawn games hipsters love?  Maybe a fountain or two.

One of the things our suburban communities lack is access to open, common spaces at commerce centers.  Target being close enough to drive to from soccer practice isn’t what I mean.  I mean walkability and multipurpose.  Micro-greens could bring these opportunities.  Kids could paint murals and the real estate companies could compete for most beautiful, creative, or sustainable patch.  There could be concerts and readings and rallies and ecological learning stations.  There could be weather monitors and air quality sensors.  There could be meetings and speeches from leaders.  There could be questions.  And all of the sudden I’m talking about sustainability in much larger terms.  I’m talking about art and culture and civics, all of those other things not commonly associated with our suburban places, and I’m talking about doing them out in the open, in front of people as a way of engagement, ecology and economic innovation.

My gut index says many, many people are more likely to patronize a multipurpose complex like the kind I’m describing than the same old depressing vacant strip malls.  My gut says people want creative solutions, more fresh air, more green grace and more synchronicity.  In short, we want better options than the failed strip mall aesthetic, and we want to be able to access our disparate goods quickly and efficiently.  Beat those vacant spaces into open ones.  If you unbuild it, they will come.

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