Originally posted Tue, Jul 31 2012 at 12:54 PM EST
By Chris Turner
The strip mall is a ubiquitous but largely unloved featured of the modern city. In a trailblazing design competition, urban design's brightest minds explore ways to make strip malls work better - and look good doing so.
At the 20th Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU20) this spring in West Palm Beach, Fla., one of the liveliest and most important recurring themes was one that many urbanists now call “sprawl repair.” New Urbanism’s first 20 years were notable primarily for impressive stand-alone neighborhoods like Seaside in Florida and Belmar in Colorado, big projects on huge sites that reinvented the American residential community from scratch. The real sustainability challenge of the next 20 years (and likely beyond), though, will be reconfiguring our existing communities to perform in an age of energy scarcity and declining automobile dependency. An aging population of smaller families will need fewer McMansions and cul de sacs and much more in the way of dense, walkable urban streetscapes.
Some of the most exciting work in this field to date has focused on retrofitting that humblest and least cherished of suburban design features: the strip mall. We all know the function of the standard version of this design, of course — it’s a quick-stop shopping plaza, usually catering to daily needs. There’s a row of four or eight or 12 small retail outlets, often in a straight line, sometimes in an L or C shape. Usually there’s a good-sized anchor tenant or two: a grocery store, a drug store, a Walmart or hardware store. The strip is pulled well back from the road, marooned from the cityscape by a wide desert of parking lot.