Shopping malls often get a bad rap for causing the demise of downtowns, but they were started with a more noble purpose beyond pure commercialism.
Architect Victor Gruen, known as the Father of The Suburban Shopping Mall, promoted the concept of malls because he believed that suburbs were missing the gathering space that was previously provided by downtowns. As families moved to the ‘burbs, there was no common area for them to meet neighbors, to walk or to interact as they shopped so Gruen created the indoor mall as a way to bring downtown to the suburbs. He included skylights, atriums, open areas and space for community events as a way to provide not just commerce, but a third-space for gathering.
As his concept became replicated across America, the malls resulted in additional urban decay and decline of downtown shopping districts. Gruen stopped building suburban malls and switched his attention to urban planning – creating “pedestrian malls” and greenways in many downtown areas. His influence is still seen today in many cities.
Through his work, Gruen sought to reverse the effects of what he called “the Vicious Cycle.” The growth of the suburbs initially occurred when planners decided it would be best to have “separation of urban functions.” Previously, everyone lived near where they worked and shopped but planners had the idea that living away from commercial and industrial areas was more desirable, so residential neighborhoods moved away from downtown. This led to a need for more road surfaces, which created urban sprawl, which increased the use of cars and decreased the use of public transportation which further increased the separation of functions.
If you put yourself in the mindset of the people at the time, you realize that those who created suburban neighborhoods and shopping malls did so with the good intentions but obviously had unintended consequences that shaped how we live and work. Ask yourself what we are doing now that future historians will look back on and wonder about our motivation.