Time magazine once described malls as “pleasure domes with parking.” Malls in general, and strip malls in particular, are ubiquitous in suburban America. Built in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, during rapid suburban expansion and rapidly increasing car usage, for better or worse, they were once a sign of progress. Now, a major enclosed mall hasn’t been built in the United States since 2006 and many are completely abandoned. According to Don Wood, the CEO of Federal Reality Investment Trust, even the process of knocking down or converting a mall could take as long as two decades.
So, the structures may be here to stay, but they don’t have to just be a homage to what once was. Abandoned malls and strip malls could be easily and efficiently converted into vertical farms.
- where are strip malls headed in the short term?
- why we should grow food in mixed use structures and think more about their impact on local economies?
- does it make sense to convert a strip mall to a vertical farm?
What’s going on? Why do we see so many bombed out strip malls? It’s actually good real estate: sufficient parking, quality locations, and highway access. But many are still just sitting there empty.
Their present abandonment actually has a lot to do with the success they had in their early days. At that time, it was almost unimaginable a strip mall would be torn down, worthless, or avoided. As a result, leases were signed, sometimes for more than 50 years. However, those leases had one important omission: an option to terminate.
That actually made a little sense back then, but now communities pay for developer and retailer shortsightedness (though you can’t be too hard on them for failing to predict the internet and online shopping…) with these awful structures. But what if we could put them to good use?
As the New Yorker noted (wow, another reference there), in some cases, the buildings have been converted into community colleges, corporate headquarters, or churches. But what about vertical farms? They’re definitely possible, but let’s look at the conventional wisdom about strip malls first and what that industry looks like in the short term.
Strip malls in the short term
In terms of symbolism, there’s a actually website called http://deadmalls.com/ that’s just a gallery of failure. The primary reason for these failings is that anchor stores (think about the big stores that are usually on the perimeter of a mall or the biggest buildings in a strip) have lost so much ground to online shopping. These were the stores that drove traffic to malls in the first place and allowed the smaller retailers, with less of an advertising budget, to bring people to their doors.
Even more shut downs are on the way according to an industry study reported on in the Wall Street Journal. In order to regain past levels of profit, department stores will have to close over 800 locations.
Mall owners will struggle to fill spaces of that size – often resorting to discount retailers like TJ Maxx and Marshals, or converting the spaces to movie theaters. This leads to decreased traffic for the entire mall environment meaning even more closures will follow in an increasingly vicious cycle.
Another, more optimistic prediction for the industry is converting the spaces to mixed use. This would be things like building apartments and condominiums above storefronts. Yet, because of the challenges with leasing agreements mentioned above, this is often more difficult and time consuming than imagined.
These challenges are going to lead to increased closures, but there is some good news.
Growing food in mixed use spaces
“Mixed-use” refers to development that combines residential, commercial, institutional, and industrial uses in a way where it is physically and functionally synergistic and that facilitates foot traffic.
Let’s look at “Jane” for a quick example. Jane is is an accountant at a local firm across the street from the apartment where she lives. On a typical day, she packs her lunch and heads across the street for a pleasant 9-5. On of her clients is the local grocer, which is in the first floor, in the same building as her apartment on the 6th. She works on their account until closing, when she meets some friends for happy hour at the restaurant downstairs from her office. Jane orders a beer, which the restaurant brews itself. Not only does it sell its beer at its own bar, but it also sells it at the grocery store next door. Jane also orders a salad at the restaurant- some the produce comes from the same grocery store, which has worked out a wholesale deal with the restaurant so they both save on shipping. But a large portion of that salad is greens, and the greens come from a hydroponics farm on the top floor of the building Jane lives in, where it can harness sunlight and HVAC exhaust from the apartments and turn it into energy. The hydroponics farm supplies both the restaurant and the grocer, and also gets its taxes done with Jane.
That example illustrates how mixed use spaces are perfect examples of synergy and of building integrated agriculture. Without increasing their carbon footprint by building separate structures, all of the businesses are able to interact, keep their dollars local, and cut out shipping costs and middlemen.
This synergy is extremely important, and when looking at the economic impact of local businesses, it becomes something even more exciting to encourage. Local businesses account for half the private economy, largely due to the multiplier effect for communities. Essentially, the multiplier effect means local businesses are more likely to spend money with other local businesses, so much so that for every dollar that moves from being spent at a nonlocal to a local business, a community will see a 2-4 greater income boost, job creation rate, and return on local taxes. 
Tying everything back to strip malls, hydroponic, and particularly vertical farms would work great in these spaces. Able to not only supply food to people living there if they are converted to mixed use, vertical farms, as a result of their ability to grow so much food in a limited space, would also be able to supply the restaurants and grocers as well. And of course, this food could be grown year round and hand delivered.
But let’s say the mixed-use philosophy doesn’t work for a certain area (not enough population density, for example) or the above-mentioned contract disputes prohibit it. What happens then?
Then you still have abandoned building ripe for conversion to productive spaces.
Does It Make Sense To Convert A Strip Mall To A Vertical Farm?
To recap – we have buildings that are going nowhere in the short term and an industry that’s dying. So, does it make sense to convert them to vertical farms? Well, China is already working on it (thanks to Fast Co for the below image and for the cover image as well).
Plus, if malls are emptying out, but owners can’t demolish or resell them because of contract or economic realities, that may just mean there are deals to be had.
Vertical farms are capital intensive and have extremely high startup costs. They’ve also been critiqued (though unfairly) for being energy intensive. To be able to cut down not only the economic footprint, but also the carbon footprint by using a refurbished structure is a great benefit.
In addition to all that, with a strip mall, much of the infrastructure needed for a commercial vertical farm is already in place: buildings that can handle high energy loads, docks and parking for shipping, and empty space for layers of grow racks.
Remodeling would be relatively easy as well. Strip malls have a cookie-cutter feel to them but this lack of design ingenuity has an advantage in that it’d be easy to throw up new insulation and ventilation to reduce heating and cooling demands of any farm space.
Purely from the real estate angle, situating a vertical farm in a mall means that the farm is either going to be close to a highway or to a populated area to ease distribution challenges and reduce shipping costs.
The decline of malls fits into the Rust Belt Hypothesis I’ve mentioned before as well. The idea of the Rust Belt Hypothesis is that declining industrial cities are perfect environments for vertical farms because of: the struggling economy; the ready work force and Rust Belt culture; dense populations; and the desire for urban revival. Malls tie in because as industry/manufacturing jobs fail, people’s purchasing power declines, leading to mall failures and unemployment. However, it also means that struggling blue collar workers may want to consider joining a green collar workforce at a vertical farm.
Malls are becoming more irrelevant by the day. There are plenty of ghost malls just sitting there and with all the challenges that this country is facing with nutrition, whether it’s too much of the wrong kind of food or not enough food at all, those spaces should be put to work. Start growing!
 See The Local Economy Solution by Michael Schuman