strip mall diagram

The Great Strip Mall Debate: There Really Are Pros and Cons, But Chicago Doesn’t Need Any New Ones


The strip mall question has re-emerged in Chicago news feeds in response to Alderman John Arena (45th) who wants to ban any new strip mall construction in the Jefferson Park business district.

So the question re-emerges.  Are Strip malls a miracle of convenience or a blight on the urban landscape.  One thing is certain – they are A LOT of parking area.  Arena asking the City Council to designate a zoning overlay district requiring that new commercial buildings be adjacent to the street, have street facing windows and push any parking to the rear.  In other words, he’s banning strip malls.  DNAinfo has been following the idea as it develops.  Arena is quoted supporting his proposal,

“The purpose of the designation is to protect the existing, pedestrian-friendly shopping district we have in downtown Jefferson Park,”

Colleen Murphy a pro-strip mall resident counters,

“A strip mall is better. You can pull in and find a spot and find what you need and go on your way.”

That convenient access IS indeed the point of this staple of the car culture.  Strip malls were created to support a car centric way of life and emerged in the same time period as the newly ubiquitous american automobile.

A Place in the History Books

The basic design is simple and universal: a line of similarly sized retail spaces set back from the street behind a convenient parking area with a uniform facade (usually an awning roof) creating and restricted signage.

1932 strip

The form is so consistent that the newest strips are barely indistinguishable from this early example (which was lauded for its convenience and tidy matching look in a 1932 issue of Architectural Record magazine.)  This mall, the Park & Shop in Washington, DC is actually a historical landmark.  Follow the link for a very nicely researched article on its history.

So what’s the big deal anyway; what are people arguing about?

On the Plus Side (yes there is one)

Strip malls are convenient for drivers.  Kind of a no brainer – they provide easy access for drivers stopping between work and home or running a series of errands with multiple stops.  There are no fees and no access check points.  Although certain strip malls do go to extreme measures to prevent non-patrons from using their lot space.

Strip Malls are Cheap.  Unless they are brand spanking new, strip mall real estate tends to be relatively cheap to rent which has turned many of them into un-official havens for small or start-up businesses.  As this article on the dangers of gentrifying strip malls points out, keeping low-rent strip  retail space around maintains a place for a diversity of class and ethnicity that would be lost if all that property were redeveloped.  They create an affordable place for interesting new businesses to find a home.

Strip malls exist.  Like them or not, strip malls fill the urban and suburban landscape and they can’t simply be wished away.

But On The Other Hand …

Strip malls are a waste of urban space.  In areas with lots of pedestrian traffic, public transit and (some) on street parking, devoting valuable land area to only partially used parking areas seems like madness.   That area contributes to the urban heat island effect, creates more storm water runoff to manage and is generally unsightly and unwelcoming.

Strip Malls are underused.  According to a recent Crain’s Chicago Business article, vacancies at shopping centers both in Chicago and nationally has risen during the last three years (in Chicago its 11.5%).  Crains doesn’t predict that those rates will fall any time soon … but rents are and will.  None of that makes the strip mall seem like a winning proposition!

Strip malls are terrible for pedestrians.  There is a huge difference between strolling along beside a succession of store front shops and dodging curb cut parking lot traffic while moving between moving cars on one side and parked cars and asphalt parking lot on the other.  Strip malls are more accessible to car drivers but much less so to local foot traffic.

Strip malls promote a car culture that is unsustainable.  Ultimately the car culture that strip malls are intended to facilitate is resource intensive and socially divisive.  In general we should be seeking alternatives to a car oriented society, not reinforcing it with our built environment.

So what’s our conclusion on the Strip Mall?

Strip malls are here to stay.  It is culturally, commercially and logistically unfeasible to go around demolishing them so we may as well make the best of the ones which exist.  That said, there is NO reason to build one more strip mall.  Ever.

As early as tomorrow, we can seek work on design compromises (more accessible for pedestrians AND convenient for those in cars), like the Multi Way Boulevard design proposed by Urban Planning firm PlaceMakers on their fascinating blog Back of the Envelope.  They note that the base concept of a strip mall (pull off, park, shop, pull out, go) can be blended with the pedestrian ideal (stroll on a sidewalk adjacent to shops and shielded from traffic).  The result: a boulevard system where main traffic flows in a centralized stream while occasional pull offs into a parking lane that borders a walkable sidewalk and store front businesses.

The following comparative diagram is from their post.  Follow the link for the full argument.

placemakers boulevard

And in the more distant future … who knows what may be possible.