Dead Malls and Future Campuses

Meet Me by the Fountain: An Inside History of the Mall by Alexandra Lange

Published in June 2022.

Can we learn anything about the future of the university from the history of the mall?

If any lessons can be found that connect malls to colleges, the starting point is Meet Me at the Fountain. It is difficult to imagine a more complete social, architectural, cultural, economic, or cross-national comparison of shopping malls than this book provides.

For some, all the detail, theorizing, and analyzing the mall’s history, relevance, and meaning may be a little too much. For those looking for clues on how the university can develop post-pandemic, the deep dive into shopping malls that Meet Me at the Fountain provided is useful.

The place where any book about the mall should start – and where Meet Me at the Fountain start – is the dead and dying mall. Lange, a design presenter, begins the book with a visit to the still-almost-empty American Dream shopping center in NJ. This 3 million square foot behemoth (with 33,000 parking spaces) has a long, difficult and fascinating history.

Where American Dream will eventually develop is unknown today. What we do know is that the traditional shopping center, located in the suburbs and designed mainly around the perceived needs of white middle class buyers, is a thing of the past.

Meet Me at the Fountain excels in unpacking how and why developers have rebuilt and redeveloped shopping malls, to the point where the US has become severely overcrowded. As Lange says, today there is a 24 square foot shopping area for every person in America. In the UK, the number is 4.6. China, the world center of new mega-mall construction, has only 2.8 square feet of shopping per person.

In the US, shopping malls were built long after either population growth or consumer demand could justify it. By 2017, there were more than 116,000 malls spread across the US. Many died, and death accelerated during the pandemic.

How is a mall like a college?

What does the rise of shopping center e-commerce tell us about the potential for online learning to cannibalize the physical campus?

One of the points Lange makes about the mall is that almost nothing has turned out about his future as the creators predicted. The features, amenities and designs that mall owners thought would motivate buyers eventually repelled them.

There is little desire among consumers to drive to suburban indoor malls that sell generic goods from national stores. The transactional elements of shopping can be accomplished more efficiently online.

The thriving shopping malls offer a combination of mixed-use activities, from dining to shopping to leisure. It is increasingly extra-mural shopping malls that are repeating a more urban feel. Some even include housing.

The irony, of course, is that in the 1970s and 1980s, the mall was blamed for the death of downtown’s urban mall. As the suburban shopping center has fallen into disfavor, its survival depends on figuring out how to reintegrate those activities of living, working, recreating and shopping that have done so much to separate.

There is every likelihood that those of us in higher education will not be better at predicting our future than the developers and owners of shopping malls have been a decade or two in the past. If mall owners knew what they needed to do to stay resilient in the face of technological, demographic, and competitive change, they would have done those things.

What we can learn from shopping malls is the need to let go of what once worked. Successful shopping malls are constantly changing. Locally owned shops and restaurants are replacing anchor stores and national brands. Once occupied by department stores, spaces become libraries, government offices and food stalls.

Like shopping malls, the physical campus will not disappear. However, in the coming years it will look and function very differently than it does today.

Things we once did at the mall or campus, like shopping and learning, can be done online. We will use the physical spaces where people gather, whether it be shopping malls or campuses, to do things that cannot be done digitally.

Will we see more university classrooms turn into housing and recreation spaces?

Can we come to campus to socialize and make contact rather than do the head-under-focused work of the academy? And if so, how will we develop campuses to accommodate the need for groups but do so in ways that are flexible for an unpredictable public health context?

Read Meet Me at the Fountain can provide one part of the puzzle in our efforts to build a different mindset around the future of physical spaces.

If reading and talking about shopping malls will help us talk about the future of the university as a physical place, count me in.

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