Skip to main content

Green roofs, well-being, and the reinvention of retail

The word “mall” derives from a croquet-like game that was played in alleyways across 16th-century Italy. Later embraced as a street name in London for social clubs, it eventually came to be defined as “a long and open area where people can walk.” Today’s mall shows little semblance of its Italian Renaissance roots, yet a remarkable shift in societal values has left us less inclined than ever to go to a mall to buy stuff and equally reluctant to pass leisure time there.

As built-environment designers, we keep our eyes on what affects how people live, work, and play. Recently, we conducted a retail study to better understand the perspective of today’s shoppers. Of the 1,551 adults across all age groups surveyed, 66% saw malls as a place to buy goods and nothing more and 63% admitted to preferring shopping at malls to touch and see before making a purchase. This is nothing new. However, only 37% admitted to going to malls for the experience and just 29% believe malls provide a sense of community.

Why, in a world where people will increasingly invest their time and money for experiences and community, isn't the heart of most North American cities providing the very thing consumers need, want, and desire most? When we consider a mall’s best assets--space and location--we have the ideal conditions in place to provide experiences and community. How do we fall short?

Digital media provide convenient alternatives to both socializing and shopping and a gander at the quarterly earnings of technology companies indicates trend is not likely to slow down. At the same time, the loneliness epidemic continues its ascent with nearly half of Americans viewing themselves as ‘always lonely’ and 18-to-22-year-olds being the loneliest generation among us. The mall, or its 21st Century iteration, holds untold potential to become a magnet for pulling us away from technology and engaging with our physical environments as human beings were designed, and are generally happy, to do.

We began exploring the relationship between well-being and physical spaces--the built environment--with an economics and public policy research organization three years ago. There are established metrics and techniques that allow us to evaluate the social, cultural, environmental, economic, and political forces that affect well-being and help us to make development decisions.

Creating spaces where people want to pass time, run errands, and shop does not need to be costly, wasteful, or complicated. It just needs to be creative. Structurally, think of a roof. Creating brand-new buildings today often means green roof installation is a no-brainer and in some cases a requirement. Beyond the environmental and economic benefits of green roofs for absorbing rainwater, providing insulation, and controlling temperatures, it has social and cultural benefits, too. Green roofs can be sanctuaries for nature and for socialization.

Biophilia, the inherent human inclination to affiliate with nature, is not just a warm and fuzzy idea. Green space is an established indicator of wellbeing, which has proven time and time again to have a positive association with the perceived general health of a population. Investment-wise, replacing mechanical equipment on a barren, grey roof with environmentally responsible alternatives provides nearby tower dwellers with a nicer view, thereby increasing the property’s value.

There’s one problem with green roofs, though. Retrofitting existing malls for them is difficult, with enough structural challenges to make it a tough sell for some retail operators and developers. The surrounding area of a mall, often dedicated to parking, doesn’t have the same structural challenges, which makes it an easier space to regenerate for public spaces. Rethinking parking and carving out enough space in a mall’s façade to install windows for natural daylight is enough to start with to reincarnate retail.

Some developers have been quietly investing in the land surrounding properties for creating public infrastructure, or ‘the public realm’ to make existing properties more versatile, more welcoming, and in turn more profitable. The bet on public spaces that don’t directly guarantee profit generation is unprecedented, but we are sure to hear more about this in the coming years. Imagine a mall that operates as a complete community, one where seniors take their morning walks and receive care in the same place as youth play and learn, entrepreneurs collaborate and network, vulnerable groups can access support systems and feel welcome, and busy families drop off the kids for extra-curricular activities while running errands in the same place. This might sound obvious to some, but it’s not happening in most places.

What’s needed to make this endemic is the coming together of financial resources and cross-disciplinary expertise and opportunity at the local and broader levels. Early signs of this are in evidence. Crosstown Concourse in Memphis, for one, has transformed an abandoned distribution center and retail space and transformed it into a purposeful collective of community gardens and parks with seating, recreation and performance facilities, healthcare and education centers, art galleries, commercial office and retail, and residences.

Reviving neglected malls goes beyond a refreshed retail strategy. Studied design techniques can have profound impact on the economic, political, cultural, social, and environmental forces that weave the human fabric of a community back together. It would be difficult to top the convenience and transactional power that e-commerce has brought to the world, but malls were never just about transactions.

It’s time to return to the mall’s 16th-century roots. The value of physical space and location are qualities that will stand the test of time.

Jim Anderson is the chair of DIALOG, a design practice of architects, urban planners, interior designers, engineers, and landscape architects that partnered with the Conference Board of Canada on The Community Wellbeing Framework. Obtain a free report at or contact Jim at [email protected].
This ad will auto-close in 10 seconds