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The urgent need to rethink city planning

The shopping mall is not exclusive to the United States. However, they are a quintessential feature of the American urban landscape. They couple two major American qualities together: excess and convenience. The threats to shopping malls are significant: online shopping is killing brick and mortar stores, and COVID-19 makes the thought of entering a shopping mall terrifying. This becomes a sign of a glaring need to rethink city planning, and with that, how to best use these malls. Thinking about the uses for underinvested areas is critical to drawing connections between gentrification and community revitalization.

Gentrification is complex, but it boils down to displacing long term residents in favor of attracting wealthy investors and homebuyers. Portland is a shining example of gentrification, a once mostly working class city, now catered to upper-middle class professionals. According to Downeast Magazine, “Since 2003, the median value of residential properties in Portland has gone up more than 40 percent.” This rapid price increase has driven many people out of the city and into the surrounding communities. You cannot structure a city to cater to a niche audience of young professionals and then displace locals. It is a strategy that helps the community on paper, but in reality simply changes the makeup of a community, rather than improving life for the people that already live in it. With Portland already so expensive, Bangor could be the next city slated to be taken hold of by these practices, by people that want to escape expensive urban areas throughout the country. 

Neighborhood revitalization –– as opposed to gentrification –– democratizes community planning processes by allowing already existing communities to state their needs for housing and services, and to be involved in the planning and building processes. The goal of this practice is to avoid displacement at all costs. Community improvement policies can range from rent control to tenant protections to Community Benefits Agreements that hold developers to their word. Another example of a policy is that of mall revitalization, something the Bangor Mall could use desperately. 

The Bangor Mall could become a flashpoint for this conflict. In 2017 Credit Susse reported that, “20% to 25% of malls will close by 2022.”  With this crisis looming, we are left with a choice either leave this hulking monument to boundless consumerism as it is, or to put the remnants to use for a reason that supports the local population. The mall provides a unique opportunity to provide ample room for housing and retail. The part that makes it unique is that all of these improvements could be done, without displacing anybody.  

This sort of community revitalization scheme was just approved in Portland for the Maine Mall, and according to the Portland Press Herald is to include “two- to three-story retail buildings, four- to five-story commercial/office buildings, seven- to eight-story residential buildings.” However, Bangor is not Portland, and the city would have different demands and constraints, but the potential is the same. The stores are not coming back and the decline of malls show the danger of putting all of your eggs in one basket. Trading a desolate mall for affordable housing, commercial space and new retail buildings is a great deal. These mixed-use communities could win a symbolic victory. It could show that the American community is stronger than the commercial interest of big box stores. 

The commercial shopping malls are relics of a bygone era, when most Americans were not living paycheck to paycheck. Now commercial malls cannot serve our needs as a country. The stores that once populated them are dying and the malls themselves are dying because of it. We need to consider revitalizing them or at least putting them to public use. Our other option is to watch malls become the newest iteration of factories and mills, glaring symbols of American decay.

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