• Empty indoor mall with closed stores

    Instead of waiting for suburban shopping malls to fail as they have in parts of the United States, developers and urban planners in Canada are encouraging their redevelopment into mixed-use spaces. (Photo: J M/Flickr)

When Austrian architect Victor Gruen pioneered the American shopping mall in the mid-20th century, he saw it as more than just a place to shop.

“Shopping centres can fill an existing void,” Gruen wrote in 1960. “They can provide the needed place and opportunity for participation in modern community life that the ancient Greek Agora, the Medieval Market Place and our own Town Squares provided in the past.”

Gruen had the vision of a modern urbanist. He imagined shopping malls as mixed-use sites, with homes, schools, offices, shops, medical centres and more. The mall would be a place for recreation, education, and socialization – an attractive, self-contained, walkable community hub.

Gruen did not see his dream come to fruition. Indeed, by the time of his death in 1980, he was horrified by what the American mall had become: islands of badly planned retail in grey seas of parking spaces. Gruen also didn’t live to see the slow death of the American mall. In 2017, Credit Suisse predicted that up to a quarter of America’s malls could close by 2022.

But on the Canadian side of the border, it’s a different story.

Building on success

Canada’s shopping centres are thriving, according to the 2018 Canadian Shopping Centre Study. Last year, 17 out of 20 of Canada’s top malls saw increases in sales per square foot compared to 2017.

“We've never seen a time in our history where landlords have been investing in their malls like they have been in the past five to seven years,” says retail analyst Craig Patterson, who wrote the study.

Canada’s shopping malls are outperforming their U.S. counterparts. The busiest shopping mall in North America is Toronto’s Eaton Centre, which receives 57.3 million visitors annually — more than Walt Disney World and about as many as Times Square in New York City, according to Patterson.

Part of America’s problem is that they had too much retail space to begin with, according to urban planner Brent Toderian. Toderian was Vancouver’s Chief Planner between 2006 and 2012 and is the founding president of the Council for Canadian Urbanism.

“They literally would allow new malls to spring up just down the road and right across the street from malls that already didn't have a large enough trade area,” says Toderian.

Unfettered competition ultimately translated into failed malls, says Toderian. Today, “dead malls” are a phenomenon in the U.S. There are online “dead mall” communities on sites like Reddit with thousands of subscribers, who both mourn the loss of malls and dedicate edgy roadtrips and photo shoots to them.

A couple of decades ago, U.S. urban planners started to pioneer a strategy called Greyfields to Goldfields, which used new ideas to redevelop failing malls. But what Canada has done goes beyond that. Instead of waiting for shopping malls to die, Canada’s urban planners applied the same principle to successful shopping malls to make them even more successful.

“We don’t wait for them to fail when there’s a bigger opportunity ahead,” says Toderian.

“The low-hanging fruit in suburban transformation”

Malls have an advantage over high streets in that they’re owned by a single landlord. Shopping malls at their heart are consumer centres shaped around consumer behaviour, so one landlord can more quickly and easily build a mallscape that better reflects what their shoppers want, such as an improved food court or entertainment centres.

But the next big trend in shopping centres doesn’t just involve rethinking retail, but land use as a whole – and it comes back to Gruen’s vision of malls as mixed-use sites.

Malls are ideal sites for residential development, as they have the land footprint and they’re already conveniently linked to transit. A 2017 report by Colliers International emphasised that cities should focus on malls as opposed to other sites for urban intensification, as they have the capacity to sustain additional density.

“They are the low-hanging fruit in suburban transformation, because the rest of the suburbs can be very hard to redevelop,” says Toderian.

However, he cautions that developers have to start with the recognition that they’re building an authentic urban place, not just a higher density suburb.

“The key is to have an integrated design that really mixes everything successfully. Because you could have a checklist of those things and then do a bad job of assembling them.”

Cities within cities

One of the most ambitious examples of shopping centre transformation in Canada is that of Vancouver’s Oakridge Centre. In a project that could cost billions of dollars, the mall is being redeveloped into a “mini-city,” with surrealistic condo towers arranged around shared green spaces and other community infrastructure, including a recreation centre, a daycare and a library.

Patterson predicts that the lower mainland of B.C. will see similar developments popping up due to the demand for and the cost of housing in the region.

But for some, these meticulously planned urban spaces raise questions about how we want our cities to develop in the future. It’s one thing to build infrastructure; animating it with the kinds of cultural and social opportunities that give cities character is often more challenging.

“Cities are not blank canvases. They are organic living beings that reflect their people and their cultures, histories and aspirations,” wrote Melody Ma in an opinion piece in The Tyee. “No two cities are the same in their cultural makeup, because their people, not the vision of a single architect or developer, create them.”

Patterson agrees that these redevelopments might feel artificial at first, but maintains that it’s a strategic move for landlords and cities. His greater concern is that creating these new urban community spaces will affect Canada’s urban cores and high streets, especially in older cities like Toronto and Montreal.

“I think one of the ways we can look to the future of shopping centres is to look at what's happening in China right now, because in China some cities are growing so fast that they didn't even get a downtown,” he says. “Their shopping centres are almost like their downtowns.”