From the Ashes, the American Shopping Mall Rises …

Craig Gastauer

Craig Gastauer is working to bring students and teachers together at the design table so that they may co-create relevant, authentic, and meaningful learning experiences. Follow him on Twitter at @CG_Bioteach


Currently, I work at a large, public high school where we are trying to reimagine the student learning experience. Like many schools, we have dedicated teachers building strong teacher directed experiences to help our students develop content knowledge and skills. Now we are re-envisioning how to develop experiences which invite students to the design table by developing the skills and dispositions necessary to co-create, and eventually, direct their own learning. Additionally, we want to teach students how to connect their strengths and perceived interests and passions, to help them find greater relevance in their efforts.

The following opportunity attempts to engage students in a scenario affecting communities across the nation: the closing of the American shopping mall. I tried to develop a background that would help students personally connect to the situation while also engaging them specifically in the Habit of Mind, “Questioning and Problem Posing.” In this way, the student can personalize their experience while developing the important behaviors and thought processes required to engage more deeply while iterating potential solutions to their identified problem.

Finally, I tried to utilize the Seven Elements of Personalized Learning to continue helping students practice certain Habits of Mind that we are trying to help students develop including, “Listening with understanding and empathy,” “Thinking interdependently,” and “Striving for accuracy.”


In the 1980s, going to one was considered the ultimate experience. People did not simply journey to these “cathedrals of consumption,” they planned for exciting extended outings. It was the place where couples met for first dates, where self-proclaimed fashionistas could check out the latest clothing trends, where retired folks met to walk laps around open hallways for exercise, where teenagers found their first job, and where friends and families could use to relax, hang out, and socialize. It was the heyday of the shopping mall.

shopping mallVictor Gruen, an Austrian immigrant and father of the shopping mall, missed the pedestrian life he experienced in Vienna and Paris which allowed diverse groups to come together and build community. For him, America’s new suburban roads represented “avenues of horror” chaotically flanked by collections of vulgarity: billboards, gas stations, car lots, industrial equipment, and random stores requiring Americans to drive everywhere. He recognized the need for a place where people could gather to find good food, shop, work, meet, and relax. The brilliance of his first modern mall was its basic form: a two-story structure with shops opening to an indoor common area. Shoppers came for anchor stores like Macy’s, JCPenney’s, Sears, and Kmart spread throughout the behemoth space but they wandered by and perused the smaller shops lining the corridors.

By the 1980s, journalists proclaimed the mall as the new “Main Streets of America.” Malls featured in popular movies. Teen singing sensations like Tiffany and Britney Spears performed mall concerts to reach the top of the pop charts. Even mall themed TV game shows and board games became popular during this decade. On the flip side, the shopping mall popularity resulted in people and their money moving to the suburbs and the decline of once popular downtown stores.

In 2005, more than 1,500 malls graced the United States. The rate of shopping mall development outpaced the rate of population growth and developers had no problem building near existing malls. As an extreme example, within a 90-minute drive of Time Square, 48 shopping malls exist competing to attract the same consumers.

Shopping Mall DataBut as is true of all economic booms, they can’t last forever. Beginning in the mid-2000s and exacerbated by the Great Recession of 2008, sales and foot traffic at the big anchor stores of malls sharply declined. Between 2010 and 2013, foot traffic to the malls during the holiday season, the busiest shopping time of the year, dropped by 50%. And with fewer visitors to the anchor stores, the smaller stores suffered greatly.

Even though the United States has recovered economically since the Great Recession, the decline of the shopping mall continues. Current estimates suggest that nearly 12,000 stores will close in 2018 after nearly 9,000 closed in 2017. By 2022, 1 of every 4 malls is expected to be out of business. So many malls are dying that an eerie YouTube series known as Dead Malls has attracted hundreds of thousands of viewers. Fiction authors are once again developing stories featuring malls; however, now they depict dark and suspense laden backgrounds to ramp up feelings of fear. Property owners like Simon Property Group are panicking and resorting to suing Starbucks and others with the hopes of preventing anchor store closings which would further reduce foot traffic.

Gruen’s vision of malls were built for patterns of social interactions that, for a variety of reasons, no longer exist. So, the question now before us is how should these spaces now be used?


Your Challenge:

Detail how you would reimagine and develop the use of this space in order to make a positive impact in and for your community.

Some questions you may have already considered:

  • What are the complex reasons for the downfall of the shopping mall? What are the reasons that some malls still thrive while others have died? How have some malls adapted to meet the needs of millennials?
  • What are the social, economic, environmental, and other impacts a dead mall has on the community? Which of those factors need to be a major focus in your reimagined use of the space?
  • What are the current needs of your community? What challenges, issues, problems need to be addressed and could how could the available space best solve the challenge?
  • How would the reimagined use of the space potentially affect the surrounding neighborhoods? Who would be positively impacted? Who, if anyone, would be negatively impacted? Be sure to explain how?
  • To what extent can your reimagined use of the space grow and/or adapt to the uncertainty of the future to meet technological, social, economic, environmental, and/or other future innovations?
    • (One of the mistakes people make when thinking about the future is to think that they are watching the final act of the play. For example, mobile shopping might be the most transformative force in retail—today. But future self-driving cars could change retail as much as smartphones. What future technology may you need to consider and/or utilize to ensure your reimagined use of the space doesn’t result in the same outcome as the 20th century shopping mall?)
  • What other questions arise for you as you are engaged in your research?

Challenge Expectations

Element Expectation Prompts My input
Goals Based on past efforts in this or other classes, identify subject specific, cross-disciplinary, and/or dispositional goals will you set and work to attain through your experience? Collaborate with your teacher to provide rationale and clarify these goals.
Inquiry & Idea Generation What problem within this challenge will you attempt to solve? What interests, passions, or ideas will you connect to this experience? At this point, what do you anticipate this connection will be?
Audience & Task To whom will you be presenting your final product and ideas? Why is this audience important?
In collaboration with members of your audience and your teacher, determine what product you will produce to best help you communicate your final ideas and plan. Justify why you anticipate this being the best product for your audience.
Evaluation What criteria would use to self-assess your own efforts and ensure that your final product meets the standards to expertly communicate your ideas to your audience? For example, does a specific standard exist for blueprints or digital rendering? Collaborate with your teacher to ensure the criteria are appropriate.
Instructional Plan Using the QUEST Action Planner, how are you going to organize your process? How will you determine next steps based on your learning?
Feedback Besides your teacher, with whom will you collaborate to receive feedback? What feedback will you seek from each person? Why will that feedback be important from that person (or those people)?
Cumulative Demonstration of Learning How will you organize and curate your learning over the duration of your instructional plan to demonstrate the depth of your understanding and how your learning has led you to your final ideas, proposals, and product?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.