The History of Strip Malls in America

Love them or hate them, the United States is packed with strip malls.  They are relatively small shopping centres with the stores arranged in a row, and plenty of parking.  Strip malls are particularly common in residential areas, usually on main road intersections.

Shopping malls, small and large, are hardly a new idea.  Strip malls are essentially descendents of the first indoor shopping centres.  The earliest we know about was the Souq al Hamdia in Syria, which dates back to the 7th century. 

Going back even further, open-air markets have taken place from the time people started bartering.  The practice of merchants gathering in one place to sell or exchange their goods has been going on for thousands of years.

Even though strip malls with their parking lots might seem a thing of the twentieth century, this particular idea is not all that new either.  These ancient shopping centres must have had places for people to leave their animals.  People might not have driven there but some would certainly have ridden.

However, what we call strip malls today first properly emerged in the 1920s.  There were a few shopping areas that roughly fit this definition from even earlier, but the classic combination of a row of shops and a parking lot started to come into its own in the twenties.

They steadily multiplied after this, especially following the Second World War.  The rise in automobile ownership increased the demand for car friendly retail outlets and from the 1950s onwards the number of strip malls grew rapidly. 

Until very recently strip malls were built with functionality in mind, and the architecture consisted basically of drab boxes livened up by whatever advertising the businesses chose to do.  In the last decade or so there have been attempts to make strip malls more aesthetically pleasing and perhaps lose the bleak, suburban associations they had.

Some of the newer ones aren’t even technically strip malls, since the shops aren’t arranged in the traditional line but divided up, or built around the parking lot.  The aim is to make them less of an eyesore and to make the shopping experience more pleasant and relaxed by encouraging walking.

It remains to be seen what the future holds for strip malls in America.  Things that likely to have an effect are the rising cost of fuel, the resultant move away from automobile dependency, and land becoming more expensive.  We might begin to see more pedestrian friendly designs and smaller parking lots.