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From the Design Quarterly: Meet me at the new mall—10 ways to make them cool

December 18, 2019

By Stephanie Tyrpak

Once just a means for getting from store to store, the concourse emerges as the cool place to be in today’s malls

It’s where we took our family portraits, got our ears pierced, went on our first movie date, and bought our outfit for the prom. It’s the mall. For decades, malls were a kind of main street for suburbanites in North America. They were places where everyone from teens to grandparents could walk through the same doors and find something—buy anything from a Mrs. Fields cookie to a kayak.

Today, however, the mall as we know it is in decline. Analysts estimate that 1 in 4 shopping malls will close its doors by 2022.

To some extent, our digital life is to blame. Digital technology makes many of those mall thrills as easy to access as a swipe of our smart phone. An app fulfills our need to socialize and be seen, our urge to go to the movies, our desire to window shop, and buy the latest trend. We can do these things at home or on the train or even on the beach. How can malls compete?

To succeed again, malls need to change their focus. They need to become places that buzz, where people want to be—social destinations. The challenge for designers is to create spaces that the capture and nurture the energy, the rush, the creativity, and variety that the digital world dips into so effortlessly. Malls have at least one big advantage, however, they have physical space that can provide a social experience in real time that connects with our emotions. They can engulf us in an environment. And while e-commerce continues to grow, physical store sales still comprised more than 90% of retail sales in the US and Canada in 2018. Malls still have much to offer.

The Sunroom at Northbrook Court in Northbrook, Illinois.

For existing malls, surviving can mean broadening the offerings on main street by incorporating more residential-geared development like grocery stores, fitness centers, and healthcare when an anchor tenant pulls out—as well as increasing transit options for visitors. But we must reimagine the interior of the mall itself with ways to attract and engage people so that it becomes a hangout space of its own.

Here are 10 ways to do it.

1. Create a place for hanging out

One significant way we can achieve this revitalization is by re-envisioning the mall concourse. In our recent work in mall repositioning and new mall design, we approached the concourse as a destination of its own, a place for hanging out, rather than just a route for reaching retail.

Our client implored us to run wild and ignore many of the preconceived notions and guidelines about retail to simply imagine the kind of space we’d seek out and want to dwell in.

Physical store sales still comprised more than 90% of retail sales in the US and Canada in 2018.

2. Connecting to emotions

In the conventional mall, the concourse is simply a circulation space. But what if it was a place to be? What kind of path would one want to take to get around? And what emotions should it evoke to be attractive to people?

We map different areas where people might feel serene, healthy, playful, social, collaborative, and focused. Then we look at big nodes near the anchor tenants where we could create excitement and create a vibe that would engage people and give them a reason to stay.

3. Break up the monotony

An overarching design goal for us on these types of projects is to break up the vast monotony and uniformity that is the typical mall concourse. In our work on the concourse for SoNo, one of the only new malls being constructed in America, that shift began with the creation of a footpath that meanders through the concourse casually rather than linearly to bring some playfulness and randomness to the experience. From there, it becomes about enriching the human experience.

Read and download the Design Quarterly Issue 07 | Adapting to Change

4. Places for people

We drew on our experience with the workplace and coworking spaces where a key strategy is to simply create a variety of pockets and places where people can dwell for an extended period. We brought our experience in creating engaging and dynamic corporate interiors applied it on a big, public-friendly scale to infuse some charm to the physical environment of the mall.

The SoNo Collection in Norwalk, Connecticut.

5. Public spaces, anchor nodes

Off the envisioned path, visitors encounter a variety of activity nodes that correspond to those emotions above and appeal across generations. The closer we come to big-name anchor tenants, the louder and livelier the adjacent space can be. It’s here that we can invoke excitement and a public vibe through design.

In these louder, more social areas, we can program anything in the space from a “park” that can host movie viewings or broadcast fashion shows to a young kid’s play area or a food hall featuring food trucks and a farmer’s market vibe. Elsewhere, further from the anchors, we can create serene places for contemplation.

6. Work and play

In some locations, we might propose a makerspace (with 3D printer) or cafes with pay-to-print abilities available to the public to draw remote workers, start-ups, entrepreneurs, and educators. A high-energy gaming area where older kids can plug in and play on a network can also make for an attractive destination.

7. Wellness and community

Malls are already used as wellness destinations. Why not play that up?

Places like Northbrook Court in Illinois (where Stantec is redesigning the concourse) are popular with mall walkers and for regular daytime stroller outings. It’s important to create incentives and destinations that encourage the walkers to take a break and stretch, even distance markers where they can track their progress. We’ve suggested educational elements around fitness and well-being and engaged retail tenants to contribute to prizes for visitors who reach certain fitness milestones in the mall, like 10,000 steps.

Center Park at the Fox Valley Mall in Aurora, Illinois.

8. Pop-ups

Pop-up cafes and kiosks allow for dynamic and hyper-local programming. A local artist can take over a space temporarily and imprint it with their own aesthetic. Or a tech retailer can offer us a chance to try the latest virtual reality headset.

9. Indoor-outdoor vibe

At the SoNo Collection in Connecticut, we cultivated an indoor-outdoor vibe, creating spaces with the aesthetic and openness that mimic an outdoor gathering area.

The third-floor marketplace is treated like an open-air market in its look with food truck-like dining options. “The magnificent room” at SoNo mirrors the concept of an outdoor urban plaza, with an outdoor terrace, reconfigurable stage, private library, and multipurpose room. “The park” features an amphitheater with seating facing a multimedia display that wraps around the main vertical circulation core.

10. Make it cool

In today’s technology-driven society, many of us still crave a community experience and physical, social interaction. Creating places within the concourse where people want to be, that’s the goal. Make it a destination, make it a place where people want to hang out, a place where life happens.

  • Stephanie Tyrpak

    An associate and senior designer, Stephanie works on commercial and healthcare projects from the initial conception through to construction administration.

    Contact Stephanie
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