Strip appeal

(Edmonton) Urban planners of the mid-20th century thought they had the solution by creating strip malls. The problem was the economic growth after the Second World War, which helped created the suburb. Fifty years on, rundown strip malls that now dot suburban landscapes in many cities are considered blights, says Rob Shields, a researcher with the University of Alberta’s City-Region Studies Centre.

He says these structures sprawling along major motorways in North America are unsustainable. “After more than 50 years of this single use zone, people are starting to rebel. They’re saying, that’s really boring, I want to be able to walk to get a cup of coffee. I don’t want to have to commute,’” he said.

To help address the problems associated with strip malls, Shields and colleague Merle Patchett asked people worldwide to submit plans that re-imagine strip malls. An exhibition opening at the Enterprise Square atrium features 20 of the more than 90 submissions by students, community leagues and architectural firms from as far as Iran, Germany and Brazil. “Strip Appeal: Reinventing the Strip Mall,” opens Tuesday, December 13, at 5 p.m.

Organizer Merle Patchett says the exhibition is part of an unusual approach to their project, which the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada funded. “It’s a different way of conducting a study by engaging with public for research. Normally in research like this, one would go out and ask questions. But in this case, we’ve asked the public to produce artistic works, re-imagining the strip mall, to change the functionality of these spaces,” she said.

The duo says strip malls are now unloved, overlooked and unsustainable because they were built for vehicles and are used mostly for retail. And that many of these nondescript structures across the continent are failing or are derelict.  “On the scale of the continent, it’s a huge issue,” Shields says.

The researchers hope to turn the tide by working with communities to develop ideas that re-imagine strip malls into sustainable structures that meet needs beyond just commerce.

“Vast areas of North American cities are suburbs and we hear over and over again that they’re not sustainable. So we need to rethink how we use these spaces to encourage people to shop more locally, for them to be able to walk to these malls and to create a sense of community. One of the big criticisms of the suburbs is that that they lack a sense of community,” Shields said.

Shields says lifestyles are changing, so strip malls are no longer the place people drop in, grab a gallon of milk and drive home. Part of the reason is the people for whom they were built no longer use them, the researchers say.
“Strip malls had 20 good years, 20 declining years, and then derelict for another 10 years,” Shields says. “The demographic of neighbourhoods and the needs of people are changing. For older people, a strip mall is not very useful because they can’t walk to it,” he said.

But from disuse arises potential, says Patchett. “Take, for example, the parking lots in front of these malls, there’s often a great big sea of parking that could be used quite differently, because there are not a lot of people going to those malls to fill up the parking lot by half,” she said. Some of the designs submitted, for example, pictured strip malls as community gardens, social spaces and playgrounds.

By re-imaging strip malls, researchers may be changing the lifestyles of those living in neighbourhoods with the malls, though Shields says the project is not a form of social engineering. He says that making suburbs sustainable would require more than re-imagining strip malls.

“If we’re talking about sustainability, we want to encourage people to use public transport, to walk to places. These re-imagined malls are places where someone can have social encounters,” Shields said. “We’re re-imaging something that’s more relevant to community life.”  

The exhibition runs until January 18, when the top three submissions will receive prizes. The public is encouraged to vote at the gallery and online for a favourite strip mall. The researchers will begin a nationwide tour of the exhibition starting early next year.  

“We’re looking for those diamonds glinting in the sand,” Shields says. “We’re prospecting for new kinds of ideas to re-imagine the strip mall.”