Strip Malls and Society

Brad Edmonds, author of There’s a Government in Your Soup, speaks of the history and social fabric of the ubiquitous strip mall. It’s a good read!

In Defense of Strip Malls

By Brad Edmonds

Strip malls are universally denigrated by writers of all sorts. The ugliness, ubiquity, and impersonal nature of strip malls are the detractors’ favorite topics. Many writers extend their diatribes into such issues as the loss of community consciousness and neighborly affiliation associated with modern American suburban life. Others bleed into invective against automobiles, pollution, mobility, and their more-socialist offshoots such as rent control and public transportation.

Given all this, what can be said in defense of strip malls? We know they’re not going away anytime soon. To the contrary, new ones continue to appear in neighborhoods near you. Is this constant appearance of new strip malls a sign that the critics are off target?

These criticisms reveal our own inconsistencies. As we drive along the large highways through a city, it is all too easy to wave one’s hand and say: “look at all these unseemly strip malls that make this place look like every other!” But if we are looking for a hardware store, need a cup of coffee, or need some engine repair, our tune changes: we are grateful that we can easily spot the Home Depot, the Starbucks, or the Buick dealer. The locale saves search costs, for which we are glad indeed, and we demonstrate this feeling by voting for them with our own money. That’s why they appear. That’s why they stay.

Let us consider the issues one at a time:

Are strip malls really ugly? It depends. Some background: In the 19th century, American courts wouldn’t enforce any kind of land-use regulations (known today as “zoning”) based on aesthetic concerns. Over the course of the 20th century, and today, courts are more willing to enforce local zoning regulations that are exclusively aesthetic in nature, on the grounds that property values (hence tax revenues) are affected by ugly buildings.

Looking at things from that perspective, then, imagine that you’ve built a house out in the country. Imagine you did so in a little subdivision, linked to a two-lane highway, ten miles from anything remotely urban. Your house has a given value; you know pretty much what it is. Two years later, someone builds a strip mall on that two-lane road, a mile from your house. What happens to the value of your house? It goes up, every time. By the judgment of all American courts over the last century, then, the strip mall is beautiful: it has increased neighboring property values. How can this be true, when we all know that strip malls are ugly? Because gains in value color our aesthetic vision. If Jackson Pollock paintings can demand huge prices, strip malls are beautiful.

Limiting the ugliness discussion to truly aesthetic concerns

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