Peter Knight welcomes the rebirth of America’s main street

Suburban America is falling out love with shopping malls. These vast complexes where people drive to consume and socialise have been integral to the millions of Americans who live in towns with no centre. The mall has been the place you go to for food, clothing, movies and, for teenagers, maybe their first kiss.

But a combination of recession, online shopping, unemployment, high petrol prices and the desire to return to the human scale of main street is bringing about a fundamental shift away from mega malls.

The more than 100,000 malls across the United States are suffering an 11% vacancy rate, the worst since 1991. In the past year alone, Gap has closed 200 stores, Sears 120 and trendy Abercrombie & Fitch 50.

Other big names such as Blockbusters and Borders have gone bust, leaving gaping holes in the malls. And those retailers that are doing well, including Nordstrom and H&M, are avoiding blighted malls, no matter how cheap the rents.

The pain is acute for the retail property companies, which, like everyone else, believed a decade ago that growth was both inevitable and infinite.

The lingering recession is certainly to blame, but there is also something far more interesting going on.

This can best be seen at the Cleveland Galleria at Erieview. Inside this mammoth glass-roofed mall in Ohio’s second largest city they are now growing arugula and basil in disused retail carts.

And there are plans to turn the edifice into a massive farm-cum-garden centre. Many see the plight of the mall as an indicator of a better and more sustainable future for the US, as the nation reassesses its mall-centric lifestyle and begins to move towards one that apes main street. America is in the midst of rediscovering the simple, human pleasures of the past.

You can see this in the peculiar confluence of desire for authenticity expressed by truck-driving Tea Party supporters of the right and the fixed-gear bike riding hipsters of the left. What brings these highly unlikely bedfellows together is not the love of beards and tattoos but artisanal production of jam, jerky, bourbon and basil.

Shout it from the roof tops

YouTube is alive with instructions on how to can or preserve food, distil whiskey in your kitchen and eat greens from your roof.

Rural towns are considering re-introducing the community kitchens of the Depression era, where people came together to cook and preserve food for the winter.

Urban farming (including high-rise hydroponics) is a hot topic at salons and dinner parties and there are profitable market gardens on warehouse roofs in cities.

Supermarkets are experimenting with commercial gardens where salads can be grown on the roof and sold in the store below, providing insulation, jobs and considerable savings on transport.

In Detroit, which is suffering from some of the worst urban blight in America, they are hoping to convert the underused car park of a shopping mall into a multi-storey community farm.And in Erieview the herbs grown in the disused carts have proved successful, and beyond just their taste.

The basil and arugula have attracted shoppers and that has brought in a new tenant to the mall: a seller of urban water barrels.

Canning and herb growing may sound rather folksy but there are real changes taking place in urban planning. After systematically neglecting the city centres of most of America’s towns and cities in preference for the anodyne suburban mall, planners are beginning to cater for the shift back to the main street where the scale is human and the emphasis is on variety and walkability.

The first step has been to recreate main street by remodelling blighted malls. This includes restoring streams that were concreted over, creating community vegetable gardens, installing charging points for electric cars and running events like cookery and gardening classes.

The planners and the property owners have realised that people want buzz and vitality. And they would prefer to walk, cycle or use comfortable public transport to get to their destination. T

his is a nation defined by the car, but that does not mean that people like it that way.

Of course, it is going to take a whole lot of planning to make sprawling cities less dependent on the car or the mall. In one such shopping centre I recently visited in Memphis, Tennessee – home of Elvis – a large sign with an even larger arrow declared: BICYCLE PARKING. There was place for exactly one bicycle.

Peter Knight is president of Context America.  

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