Here's something to be thankful for as the first decade of the new millennium draws to a close: the mallrat is now on the endangered species list.
The flames of America’s once-steady love for the suburban shopping mall have been fanning out for the better part of a decade now. Many factors are to blame (or thank, depending on your perspective), and as the New York Times and others have reported this past year, the sagging economy is surely one of them. So too is the backlash against suburban sprawl and a renewed preference for city living and walkable neighborhoods.
I count myself among those who will not miss sitting in traffic, jockeying for a decent parking spot, or dodging packs of mallrats while still staying upwind of Yankee Candle.
In the 1990s, malls went up at a rate of 140 a year. Minnesota’s Mall of America -- the country’s largest mall -- opened its 4.2 million square feet of retail space in 1992. Things have changed since then. In an article written by Tim Folger in the summer 2008 issue of OnEarth, Ellen Dunham-Jones, the director of the Georgia Institute of Technology’s architecture program, reported that the number of indoor shopping malls built in 2006 had fallen to one. Just one.
It’s worth noting that Asia has missed out on this particular American shopping trend and has continued to expand its mallrat habitat at a breakneck pace.
Although I had read about Asia’s great mall race -- according to Forbes, the continent is now home to nine of the world’s 10 largest malls, six of which were built since 2004 -- I hadn’t quite realized how little they’d learned from America’s mall follies until I came across a documentary that originally aired in August on PBS.
In 2005, just as America’s mall-building era was grinding to a halt, China built the New South China Mall in Dongguan, China, some 50 kilometers south of Guangzhou and 90 kilometers north of Shenzhen. The project was driven by an “if you build it, they will come” mentality that didn't quite pan out. Nobody came. Really. Wikipedia cites a vacany rate of more than 99 percent, a statement that appears to be corroborated by PBS's video footage.
Though the mall's official Web site claims it is centrally located, the U.S.-based mall consultant featured in the film argues otherwise. There is no easy way to get to the New South China Mall, he says: no airport, no train station, no major highway. It’s an extreme lesson on the merits of transportation-oriented development, the mainstay of smart growth planners that puts homes, offices, shops, and entertainment in close proximity to public transportation.
The online version of PBS's documentary on the New South China Mall is 13 minutes long, and there are enough cringe-worthy moments to carry you through the first half with nary a blink: a skipping Teletubby that performs for no one, an eerie escalator to nowhere, a shop clerk who giggles as she confesses she has never made a single sale, and the mall consultant who tells the interviewer in all earnestness that the vast, vacuous space behind him is evidence for China surpassing the West.
See for yourself:
Laura Wright is the senior editor of OnEarth. She is the author of Redrawing the American City, the current issue’s cover story about smart growth and urban redevelopment in Chicago.