Dead Malls: Suburban Activism, Local Spaces, Global Logistics

Parlette, V., & Cowen, D.

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Parlette, V., & Cowen, D. (2011). Dead Malls: Suburban Activism, Local Spaces, Global Logistics. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 35(4), 794–811.

An entire category of urban space, albeit hardly recognized as such, is disappearing across North America. As retail logistics globalizes and big-box power centres replace enclosed shopping malls from the postwar era, a distinct form of social infrastructure vanishes as well. ‘Dead malls’ are now a staple of North American (sub)urban landscapes, and have provoked local activism in many places. But despite popular concern for the demise of mall space, critical urban scholarship has largely sidelined the phenomenon. Much of the disjuncture between popular outcry and academic silence relates to conceptions of ‘public’ space, and specifically the gap between formal ownership and everyday spatial practice. Spatial practice often exceeds the conceptions of designers and managers, transforming malls into community space. This is particularly true in declining inner suburbs, where poor and racialized communities depend more heavily on malls for social reproduction as well as recreation and consumption. In this article we investigate the revolution in logistics that has provoked the phenomenon of ‘dead malls’ and the creative activism emerging that aims to protect mall space as ‘community space’. Taking the case of the Morningside Mall in an old suburb of Toronto, we investigate the informal claims made on mall space through everyday spatial practice and the explicit claims for community space that arise when that space is threatened. We argue that many malls have effectively become community space, and activism to prevent its loss can be understood as a form of anti-globalization practice, even if it never employs that language.

Main finding
Twin processes affecting social and economic space – the decline of post war inner suburbs and the globalization of the logistics of retail relationships – were at play in the demise of the mall. As new forms of retail logic grant big box stores increased power over the demand of goods, prices, and supply chains, their appearance in suburban settings effect the built environment, lived experiences of local residents, and the forms of community that have developed through spatial practices. In this case study, the authors found the mall to be an important gathering place in the low income, marginalized suburb – already lacking public space – as well as a location for needed social services. With the destruction of the ‘dead mall’ came the end to what many considered the heart of the community and a continued privileging of capital accumulation and consumerism instead civility, debate, and how spaces are actually used.

Description of method used in the article
While no clear methods were indicated in this case study, it is inferred that archival research and reviews of literature were heavily employed.

Of practical use

Organising categories

Archival / Historical Case Study
Physical types
Geographic locations