Shoppers wear face masks as they walk inside a suburban mall.

Ellen Dunham-Jones: This Year’s
Holiday Shopping Must-Have is Space

Ellen Dunham-Jones: This Year’s
Holiday Shopping Must-Have is Space

November 23, 2020 | Atlanta, GA

By Carmen New

It is that time of year when people visit malls and shopping centers to shop and soak up the holiday season. This year, in true 2020 fashion, even the traditional holiday shopping experience will be disrupted. But not necessarily for obvious reasons.

“Mall shopping, in particular, has really always been more of a leisure activity than a necessity, errand-type activity,” said Ellen Dunham-Jones, professor and director of the Master of Science in Urban Design (MSUD) program in the Georgia Tech School of Architecture.

“With the increase in the number of hours that Americans now spend indoors, especially looking at a screen, a lot of us are craving to spend what leisure time we have outdoors,” she said.

“That's what was driving the conversion of indoor malls into outdoor and mixed-use centers, pre-pandemic.”

Co-author of Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs and the forthcoming Case Studies in Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Strategies for Urgent Challenges, Dunham-Jones is renowned for her research related to the death of malls and the retrofitting of abandoned shopping and business spaces.

Enclosed spaces, from large malls to small standalone shops, face new challenges as consumers opt to shop online instead of in-person, as a matter of safety. The changes we will see in this year’s holiday shopping season were set in motion years ago, she said.

"Reality is, malls might have initially been built as open air, and then it became fashionable to have the roof and then became fashionable to take the roof off," said Dunham-Jones. "They're constantly evolving."

Dunham-Jones studied many malls around the country and observed how they thrive once retrofitted. She found that there are approximately 1500 buildings or developments in the U.S. that were at one point in time enclosed malls.

Many of those spaces have taken on new purposes to better serve their communities. Enclosed malls live new lives as medical facilities, green spaces, housing for seniors, and more.

Design Matters as Suburban Communities Change

Shops on a street in The Battery, with visitors walking along a broad avenue.
Photo: College of Design
Shops on a street in The Battery, a suburban shopping and restaurant district next to Atlanta's baseball stadium.

“The big news story, really, is there's been a very significant increase in sales of standalone single-family homes,” Dunham-Jones said, “most of it driven by people who are leaving cities.”

“A lot of those people are the ‘mom and pop’ millennials—folks who really loved an urban lifestyle, but are now trying to work from home while having kids in school from home. Suddenly that little apartment is just not doing it. They need more space.”

Dunham-Jones’ research, along with co-author June Williamson, Chair and associate professor at the City College of New York School of Architecture, is focused on retrofitting suburbia. They explore how suburbs shape to fit the needs of their changing communities.

As urbanites move to the suburbs in pursuit of space, many crave the aspects of the cities they left behind. This presents an opportunity for urban designers, architects, and developers to enhance the design of our suburbs.

“I think what it also means is that once all else is equal, design matters even more,” Dunham-Jones said. “As long as that urban lifestyle is seen as unhealthy, they're making the choice. The suburbs are now receiving a lot of new people, but it's people who actually want a more urban lifestyle,” she said.

“They want a walkable, more transit, more shared park space, more trails, more nightlife than the suburbs generally offer.”

New Life for Old Retail Spaces

“We see huge trends as these retail sites, in particular, are redeveloped,” Dunham-Jones said. “They'll have a small-town green that's a gathering space programmed with farmers’ markets and yoga classes and festivals and all that kind of thing. And it’s been lined with often much smaller shops, more local shops.”

A key factor to improving conditions for suburban communities is the availability and accessibility of walkable, outdoor mixed-use spaces, she reiterated. “During the pandemic, guess which is doing better?”

“It's those malls that have been redeveloped, and where a retailer can put as much merchandise into their window as they want. But we're seeing a lot of the Main Street-type retail doing better than that standalone, super big-box.”

Suddenly, Dunham-Jones said, people are wondering, “is it safe for me to be shopping in an indoor space?”

Holiday shopping will be different this year. Santa will be placed behind plexiglass. More shopping will be conducted online instead of in stores that are decked out with twinkling lights and garland. The Center for Disease Control still recommends wearing face masks in public spaces, social distancing, and handwashing for at least 20 seconds in order to help control the outbreak.

But some of the changes in malls and Main Streets were already happening. The desire for community spaces continues to grow in popularity, Duhnam-Jones said, especially as urbanites move into the suburbs.

“I think we, as humans, crave being connected to our community and being around other people, and it is sort of feeling vital and fun,” said Dunham-Jones.

“There was this pent-up demand for that, which kind of gave a big boost. We don’t know how it’s all going to play out, but I do think a lot of the pre-pandemic trends, those essentials are still there.”

More Holiday Expertise from Georgia Tech

A graphic showing a Christmas bow with the text reading Unprecedented Holidays

Unprecedented Holidays

Visit Unprecedented Holidays for more holiday season insights from Georgia Tech researchers.

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