Christmas shopping used to be a delight. The decorations, fake snow and Christmas trees, incessant Christmas music, kids lined up to see Santa and his elf and maybe a few reindeer — it was all a pageant of wonderful dreams. The sidewalks were crowded with shoppers loaded with bags and boxes and the ever-present Salvation Army soldiers with their bells and donation buckets. And the stores were full of colorful and delightful toys and gadgets maybe just dreamed of, but right there on the shelf to be added to the Christmas list or purchased for a special person.
Our local mall is surrounded by enormous parking lots, but the farther spaces create the specter of a daunting trek with armloads of purchases. Inside, shoppers crowd the open stores and food court while developing shortened tempers and losing control of their kids.
As I have gotten older, Christmas shopping doesn’t seem as magical. Maybe not having children in tow makes it just seem too commercial and busy. So many of the shops are empty and closed. Today, we shop online to avoid the crowds and hassles. Our stack of catalogs has grown steadily since Thanksgiving, and every few days I winnow through the stack for duplicates and search for new arrivals.
All the catalogs and most of the packaging from delivered purchases goes into our recycling bins (hopefully not destined for Chinese landfills). I don’t know how the printing, mail and delivery impacts of the catalogs compare to the fuel for shopping trips to various stores from a resource standpoint, but the large, seldom-used spaces and empty stores seem to me to be a complete waste.
New Urbanism harkens back to the days of small, local commercial districts, where the first floors were usually commercial (stores, offices) and upper levels were residential, with a few offices mixed in. The physical footprint of today’s one-story box stores and strip malls creates wasted second story potential. Surely there is a need for that space for something useful?
Well, most cities today have a need for homeless housing.
Author S.A. Rogers has covered the demise of malls, “With the age of big box stores waning, all those massive abandoned retail facilities could be transformed almost instantly into housing for the homeless using a variety of plug-and-play prefab elements … what we seem to need space for the most in cities — housing people who tend to fall through the cracks as the cost of living continues to increase.” She reiterates that we should utilize “entire complexes of supportive spaces and services within the empty shells of stores like Sears and JCPenney.”
“Living without a home not only endangers individuals’ health and safety, but is also a significant barrier to obtaining and keeping a means of employment. Shelter is a necessity for all, and providing housing is one way to ease suffering and support individuals seeking to break a cycle of poverty.”
Homeless people aren’t the only ones in need of housing. The need for affordable housing is also critical. A recent development in my own local downtown added a hundred or so senior apartments in a couple of three- and four-story buildings, with commercial space on the ground floor. The subsequent addition of a resident downtown population sparked the growth of local cafes and markets, which in turn added to the downtown attractions.
Unlike the homeless, affordable housing residents contribute to the retail market. Local ‘downtowns’ thrive on foot-traffic, which is increased by local residents. Instead of that empty feeling you get in a half-occupied mall, a thriving community of small and medium-sized shops and restaurants is pleasant and lures you back. In contrast, driving miles to a mall, then walking around a half-empty atrium trying to decide if any of the surrounding big-box stores have anything of interest only reinforces my desire for the serendipitous shopping experience in a bustling town center.
It’s even more fun than catalog shopping.
Here’s wishing you all happy holidays and warm homes!
Steve Tarlton, Retail Apocalypse, 4/18/19, Writes of Nature
SA Rogers, Re-Habit: Transforming Abandoned Big-Box Retailers to Housing for Homeless, 11/02/18, WebUrbanist