I can't remember the last time I was in a mall. Maybe it was in 2006, when I was helping my then-boyfriend find his sister a Christmas gift at Hot Topic. But I've generally kept away from them for years. But it's not like I was always a mall-avoider. Like many Americans, I used to love the mall. For about a decade (for me that would have been from the age of 8 until I left for college), I went to the mall to pick up what I needed from various stores, to window shop, to people watch, and eat a hot pretzel. Often I would see a movie. 


I'm not the only one who doesn't go to the mall anymore; the dropping popularity of the local megamall has gotten so bad that many have closed, and a new mall hasn't been built since 2006 in the United States. Note that this is before our current economic crisis began. Malls that were on their way out have been pushed closer to closure during our latest recession. And while small companies that rented out mall spaces have gone bankrupt, even well-to-do large companies are closing stores and pulling out. 


As the New York Times reported, "Sears Holdings is closing up to 120 stores, Gap Inc. 200 stores and Talbots 110. Abercrombie & Fitch closed 50 stores last year, Hot Topic, almost the same number. Chains that have filed for bankruptcy in recent years, like Blockbuster, Anchor Blue, Circuit City and Borders, have left hundreds of stores lying vacant in malls across the country."

So what to do with the giant indoor spaces, the acres of parking lots, the miles of walkways? 


Well, if a mall hasn't already closed, it can consider one of the new iterations of the contemporary mall. Communities and city planners have gotten creative, using abandoned mall spaces for schools, government offices, medical clinics, casinos, wedding venues, call centers and churches. And while some malls are being torn down and housing or completely new retail buildings are being built, it is much more economically savvy (and green) to reuse the existing infrastructures. 


How about an urban farm? While streams and other natural features have been brought back from being buried under concrete in some situations where malls are getting makeovers (along with adding putting greens, dog parks and other outdoor activities), a few enterprising souls have taken a look at the great natural light (many malls were built with skylights), good access to public transportation, and central locations. And thinking green. 


At Cleveland's Galleria, what started as a way to spruce up abandoned mid-mall carts has blossomed into something more. Now strawberries and lettuces grow throughout the mall and are for sale to visitors and supply the mall's catering. Other forward-thinkers suggest recreating malls as greenspaces, with natural landscaping, benches, picnic areas, and yes, maybe a few shops too. Especially in places with cold and snowy winters, imagine a mall filled with greenery and running paths, places for families to play, and otherwise enjoy themselves in the outdoors that is indoors. Healthy, community spaces that are paid for via tax dollars (which already support malls anyway) and companies renting out the fewer storefronts available. 


Or what about an urban farm? Food couldn't get much more local than being grown at what was once a monument to fast food and glittery things turned healthy eating center. Converting a mall into a farm could mean fresh and local produce year-round, and employment for underprivileged or out of work people, as well as retirees. 


There are a thousand positive, creative things we could do with our nation's abandoned malls. What are your ideas?

Starre Vartan ( @ecochickie ) covers conscious consumption, health and science as she travels the world exploring new cultures and ideas.

A green revolution at our nation's malls
Our shopping centers are ready for a new incarnation — as community spaces, sports centers and maybe even farms.