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Dead malls and future campuses

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Meet at the Fountain: The Inside Story of a Mall Alexander Lange

Published in June 2022.

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

If there are any lessons connecting malls to colleges, it’s the place to start Let’s meet at the fountain. It is hard to imagine a more comprehensive social, architectural, cultural, economic, or cross-national comparison of shopping centers than this book offers.

For some, the details, theorizing and analysis of the mall’s history, significance and meaning may be too much. For those looking for clues about how the university might thrive post-pandemic, a deep dive into the malls that Let’s meet at the fountain provides useful.

Where should any book in the mall start – and where Let’s meet at the fountain begins is a dead and dying mall. Lange, a design critic, begins the book by visiting the still mostly empty American Dream mall in New Jersey. This 3 million square foot (33,000 parking spaces) behemoth has a long, turbulent and fascinating history.

What the American dream will ultimately lead to is unknown today. What we do know is that the traditional suburban mall, designed primarily for the perceived needs of white, middle-class shoppers, is a thing of the past.

Let’s meet at the fountain excellent at unpacking how and why developers overbuilt and overdeveloped malls to the point where the US became seriously underfunded. According to Lange, there are 24 square feet of retail space for every person in America today. In the UK, the figure is 4.6. China, the world’s center for new mall construction, has just 2.8 square feet of shopping per person.

In the US, malls continued to be built long after population growth or consumer demand could justify them. By 2017, there were more than 116,000 malls in the United States. Many died, and the extinction accelerated during the pandemic.

How is a mall like a college?

What does the mall-killing growth of 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 in its future has turned out the way its creators predicted. The features, amenities and design that mall owners thought would motivate shoppers ended up repelling them.

Among consumers, there is little desire to go to suburban indoor malls that sell generic goods from national stores. The transactional elements of a purchase can be completed more efficiently online.

Thriving malls offer a mix of activities, from dining to shopping and leisure. Increasingly, these are open-air malls that replicate a more urban feel. Some even include accommodation.

The irony, of course, is that the mall was blamed in the 1970s and 1980s for helping to destroy the city’s downtown retail core. As the suburban mall falls out of favor, its survival depends on figuring out how to reintegrate the activities—life, work, recreation, and shopping—that it has done so much to separate.

Chances are, those of us with college degrees will be no better at predicting our future than developers and mall owners were a decade or two ago. If mall owners knew what they needed to do to stay resilient in the face of technological, demographic and competitive changes, they would.

What we can learn from shopping malls is the need to let go of what once worked. Successful shopping centers are constantly changing. Local stores and restaurants replace mainstream stores and national brands. After the premises were occupied by department stores, they became libraries, government offices and food stalls.

Like malls, the physical campus isn’t going away. However, in the years to come, it will look and function very differently than it does today.

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

Will we see more university auditoriums being converted into accommodation and recreational spaces?

Can we come to campus to talk and network rather than engage in the focused work of academia? And if so, how will our campuses evolve to meet the need for groups to come together, but to do so in ways that are flexible to the unpredictable health care context?

Reading Let’s meet at the fountain can be a piece of the puzzle in our efforts to build a different way of thinking around the future of physical spaces.

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

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