The US invented shopping malls, but China is writing their next chapter

On a recent research trip to China, I wandered through the Oasis Mall in suburban Shanghai. Like many Chinese shopping centers, this complex was filled with empty stores that reflected the end of China’s 30-year-long economic expansion. But there also were surprises.

Along a stretch of the mall’s interior walkway, a cluster of parents and grandparents sat on chairs. They were looking through a plate glass window, watching a dozen 5- to 7-year-old girls practice ballet steps, carefully following their teacher’s choreography. A space initially designed for retail had been turned into a dance studio.

Like their U.S. counterparts, many Chinese malls have fallen on hard times. The COVID-19 pandemic and the rise of online shopping have devastated foot traffic, leaving the nation with a huge overhang of retail space. But many Chinese malls are being re-imagined by owners and users as palaces of experience – civic areas for communities to meet and interact, with new configurations of public and private space.

As a longtime urban policy scholar, I was fascinated by the new uses I saw for malls in China. In my view, these experiments could become models for new, creative uses of retail space in the U.S., where the mall was invented.

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