100 years of growth of the American shopping mall, animated


The Atlantic Terminal Mall in Brooklyn (Craig Warga/Bloomberg)

The shopping mall was an American creation of the 20th century, a twist on the more intimate Old World market sized to American proportions, built to satisfy American disposable incomes and designed with space for our many American cars.

It has its own traceable lineage, from the earliest planned shopping centers to the first regional hubs for shoppers traveling by car, to the novel post-war enclosed malls of Victor Gruen (a man whose name became synonymous with that hypnotic effect that propels us, zombie-like, from Cinnabon to Brookstone to the Yankee Candle store).

Even as the old-school indoor mall has waned in popularity of late, still we've innovated on the idea. Big-box stores led to power centers. A backlash to the impersonal architecture of massive malls bred in their place "lifestyle centers," modern malls disguised as neighborhoods.

Malls, in short, have spread across the American landscape -- and defined it -- with remarkable success, adapting to our changing tastes along the way. And this is at least a rough animation of what that history has looked like (press the play button embedded below):

Sravani Vadlamani, a doctoral student in transportation engineering at Arizona State, created that "MapStory" with historic information from the ASU GIS Data Repository (a data set that in this case draws on the Directory of Major Malls). Her animation includes the spread of more than 6,000 malls of many kinds: strip malls, outlet malls, indoor and outdoor malls.

Over a century, the animation gives a good sense of how malls crept across the map at first, then came to dominate it in the second half of the 20th century. In the legend, the dots are colored by the number of stores in each mall (those dots do not, however, disappear as once-celebrated malls close down).

In the 21st century, this trajectory poses two questions for planners, architects, developers and anyone invested in retail going forward: If the mall continues to evolve, what will it look like in the future (even if it comes to look consciously not like a mall at all)? And what should we do now with all these very quirky, massive boxes we've already built?

Emily Badger is a reporter for Wonkblog covering urban policy. She was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic Cities.

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