Dead malls and future campuses

Meet Me by the Fountain: An Inside Mall Story by Alexandra Lange

Published in June 2022.

Can we learn anything about the future of college from the story of the mall?

If lessons linking malls to colleges are to be found, the starting point is Meet me by the fountain. It is hard to imagine a more comprehensive social, architectural, cultural, economic or cross-national comparison of shopping malls than that provided by this book.

For some, all the detail, theory and analysis of the mall’s history, relevance and significance might be a bit too much. For those looking for clues as to how the university might evolve post-pandemic, the deep dive into the malls that Meet me by the fountain provides is useful.

The place where any mall book must begin – and where Meet me by the fountain begins – is the mall dead and dying. Lange, a design critic, begins the book with a visit to the still nearly empty American Dream mall in New Jersey. This 3 million square foot giant (with 33,000 parking spaces) has a long, troubled and fascinating history.

What the American dream will evolve into is unknown today. What we do know is that the traditional mall, located in the suburbs and designed primarily around the perceived needs of middle-class white shoppers, is a thing of the past.

Meet me by the fountain excels at unpacking how and why developers have overbuilt and overdeveloped malls, to the point where the United States has become severely overexploited. As Lange recounts, today there is 24 square feet of shopping area for every person in America. In the UK, that number is 4.6. China, the world center for building new mega-malls, has just 2.8 square feet of shopping per person.

In the United States, shopping malls continued to be built long after population growth or consumer demand could justify them. In 2017, there were over 116,000 malls spread across the United States. Many were dying and mortality accelerated during the pandemic.

How is a mall like a college?

What does the rise of e-commerce killing malls tell us about the potential of online learning to cannibalize the physical campus?

One of the points Lange makes about the mall is that almost nothing of its future has turned out as its creators predicted. The features, amenities and designs mall owners thought would entice shoppers ended up pushing them away.

Consumers are reluctant to drive to suburban indoor malls that sell generic products in national stores. The transactional elements of shopping can be done more efficiently online.

Successful malls offer a mix of mixed-use activities, from dining to shopping to recreation. Increasingly, these are outdoor malls that replicate more of an urban feel. Some even include accommodation.

The irony, of course, is that the mall in the 1970s and 1980s was blamed for helping to kill off the downtown urban commercial core. As the suburban mall has fallen out of favor, its survival depends on how it reintegrates those living, working, recreating and shopping activities it has done so much to keep separate.

Chances are those of us in higher education will be no better at predicting our future than developers and mall owners were a decade or two ago. If mall owners had known what they needed to stay resilient in the face of technological, demographic and competitive changes, they would have done these things.

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

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

The things we once did at the mall or on campus, like shopping and learning, can be accomplished online. We’ll use the physical spaces where people gather, whether it’s malls or campuses, to do things that can’t be done digitally.

Will we see more college classrooms turn into housing and recreational spaces?

Could we come to campus to socialize and connect rather than do the headlong work of academia? And if so, how will our campuses evolve to meet the need for groups to come together, but in a flexible way in the face of an unpredictable public health context?

While reading Meet me by the fountain can provide part of the puzzle in our efforts to build a different mindset around the future of physical spaces.

If reading and talking about malls helps us discuss the future of college as a physical place, count on me.

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