At the 20th Congress for the New Urbanism in West Palm Beach, Fla., one of the liveliest and most important recurring themes was one that many urbanists now call “sprawl repair.” New Urbanism’s first 20 years were notable primarily for impressive stand-alone neighborhoods like Seaside in Florida and Belmar in Colorado, big projects on huge sites that reinvented the American residential community from scratch. The real sustainability challenge of the next 20 years (and likely beyond) though, will be reconfiguring our existing communities to perform in an age of energy scarcity and declining automobile dependency. An aging population of smaller families will need fewer McMansions and cul de sacs and much more in the way of dense, walkable urban streetscapes.

Some of the most exciting work in this field to date has focused on retrofitting that humblest and least cherished of suburban design features: the strip mall. We all know the function of the standard version of this design, of course — it’s a quick-stop shopping plaza, usually catering to daily needs. There’s a row of four or eight or 12 small retail outlets, often in a straight line, sometimes in an L or C shape. Usually there’s a good-sized anchor tenant or two: a grocery store, a drug store, a Walmart or hardware store. The strip is pulled well back from the road, marooned from the cityscape by a wide desert of parking lot.

This is what a strip mall is, where it began. But what else could it be? This question is at the heart of an eye-opening design competion called “Strip Appeal,” which was launched by the University of Alberta last year and attracted fascinating, innovative submissions from across North America. (The “Shortlist” and “Notables” sections of the website make for some thought-provoking eye candy.)

Here are the contest winners, announced earlier this year, along with my two favorites that didn’t win:

1. “Free Zoning” by Stephanie Davidson and Georg Rafailidis

This entry, which won the Jury Prize, is more a zoning trick than a full-on retrofit. It proposes transforming a derelict strip mall in Buffalo, N.Y., by dismantling it, lifting all zoning restrictions, and allowing new residents to use the materials for free to build new structures. The advantage, is that it keeps the old strip-mall foundation — the most expensive single element of the construction — so it would permit a mini-neighborhood to pop up on the cheap.

2. “Park(ed) Mall” by Carole Levesque, Todd Ashton and Aumer Assaf

The Jury runner-up was this entry from a team working in Edmonton, Alberta, which invented a replicable design concept for a next-generation strip mall. The “Park(ed) Mall” would involve clearing an existing strip-mall site and reconfiguring it as a park space, outfitted with docking stations for small businesses set up in trailers. It’s a nimble, flexible and endlessly reconfigurable approach to retail development.

3. “Unbox-Embrace-Cohere” by by Jasper Hilkhuijsen and Geraldine Li

This redesign of a strip mall in the Netherlands won the Public Choice award. The central innovation is to punch holes in the strip mall, to break it into a series of smaller boxes (the “unbox” part of the equation) which allow for greater integration (“embrace”) with the neighborhood. In the design drawings, a rooftop patio, courtyards and green space are added to tie the pieces into a single integrated whole (“cohere”). Stylish stuff, though the design team had the advantage of starting with a Dutch-style strip mall, where the mall itself is tight against the street.

4. “Pop-Up Food Truck Station” by Daniel Orlando Martinez

This one earns my runner-up prize for a clever twist on a booming urban trend. It takes the standard strip mall, turns it into a food-court space without the restaurants, then adds in docking stations for food trucks, which are of course the hottest thing in street-scale, low-cost urbanism in cities across the continent. This idea is similar to the “Park[ed] Mall” concept above, which leads me to think that maybe the modular docking station for small retail might become a critical tool in the sprawl repair kit. And I like the food truck cross-pollination a lot, because food trucks are such crowd pleasers — a great way to prove the concept to a city hall reluctant to make big zoning changes (are there any other kinds of city halls)?

5. “Strip:Weave” by Teal Architects

This stylish design, a sort of earthy modernist retrofit of a strip mall in suburban Halifax, Nova Scotia, wins my grand prize. It brings density, green space, and nimble, modular retail configurations to the plain old strip, and it does so with eye-catching design of the sort that could create a destination all by itself. This goes beyond reconfiguration to wholesale reimagination, and it introduces a highly replicable way to bring mixed-use urban design to suburbia. 

To trade case studies in sprawl repair 140 characters at a time, follow me on Twitter: @theturner.

Related posts on MNN: 

5 innovative ways to reinvent the strip mall
The strip mall is a ubiquitous but unloved part of modern cities. Urban design's brightest minds explore ways to make them better.