Room to Shop

Americans need room to buy stuff Americans don't need.

I read an article in last week’s New York Times Magazine about the movement to convert vacant retail space into churches, museums, libraries, schools, and other community spaces.

The article’s author, Rob Walker, quoted some statistics from a book called “Retrofitting Suburbia,” by Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson. The statistics were somehow shocking but not at all surprising. In 1986, the United States had about 15 square feet of retail space per person in shopping centers. By 2003, that figure had increased by a third to 20 square feet. “The next countries on the list are Canada (13 square feet per person) and Australia (6.5 square feet).” The European country with the most retail space per person in shopping centers is Sweden, of course, at 3 square feet per person.

Interesting note: As of October 2008, Portland had the country’s fourth lowest level of retail space in shopping centers per person among major American cities, according to to this report with the ironic title from CoStar Advisors. At 14.43 square feet person (which is still huge), Portland comes in behind New York City (1.66 square feet), Long Island (9.3 square feet), and San Francisco (12.25 square feet). (The picture above is of Portland’s mall, the Lloyd Center.)

CoStar also calculated the total retail space per capita (shopping centers and everything else) for the 59 major markets. Those 59 markets have an estimated average of 43.71 square feet of retail space for every man, woman, and child in the city. Portland has the third lowest retail space per capita at 27.95 square feet, trailing Long Island and Charlotte. The market with the most retail space per capita is Southwest Florida at 74 square feet, followed by Richmod, Winston-Salem, Greenville, Tulsa, Oklahoma City, Toledo, San Antonio, Jacksonville, and Birmingham.

This is a post about our priorities.


  1. John, I agree with your implied statement about our consumerism. Having said that, I will play Devil's advocate just because:

    Building shopping centers and stores and malls and stadiums (another bastion of consumerism) enables a lot of hard-working people to put food on the table for their families. What could possibly be wrong with that?

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  3. Is this post about our priorities, or our geography?

    New York City has the lowest retail space per person because there is so little room, not because they are less affected by consumerism. The fact that there is less space does not directly translate into less money being spent on consumer goods. San Francisco would fall in the same boat.

    This same concept also explains much of the international discrepancies.

    Don't get me wrong, we Americans are consumer pigs and all that, I just don't think this data directly supports this idea.

    Portland would probably be one of the few locations in this study where retail space per person would be intentionally, and not spacially, related.

    Your thoughts?

  4. Honestly, I think the whole Mall-Retail space repurposing idea is interesting (although the title of the NY Times article made me cringe).

    Why not have a library or museum at a mall? Sure, we can have a conversation about American consumerism, but it's a conversation that's been going on for longer than most of us have been alive, and there are few fresh takes on the subject.

    Rather, a conversation about the terrific irony and felicity of commercial enterprises going under and being used by non-commercial entities...really, that's pretty great.

    And hey, when I was in Portland, at Imago Dei, there was all sorts of talk of looking for church space in the city. You don't get much more "in the city" than a mall.

  5. @James: The mafia (another bastion of consumerism) also enables a lot of hard-working people to put food on the table for their families. People like Richard Kuklinski.

    And yet, you'd probably agree there's something wrong with that.

    @John Pattison: Your photo of Lloyd Center made me homesick.

  6. I wasn't comparing the priorities of New York to Portland, or Portland to Southwest Florida. I was perhaps comparing the priorities of the United States to countries in Europe, at least as far as infrastructure and urban planning may be concerned. Regarding the different priorities of major American cities, it would be interesting to juxtapose retail space per capita with green space or open space per capita.

  7. @James: To clarify on that last point, my point was that enabling people to make money isn't automatically a good thing.

    I think the post's point is this is another example of wasted space. Cutting down the amount of retail space per person does not necessarily mean reducing jobs, or limiting capitalism. It just means being more responsible with the space we do use.

    New York City (with limited space, period) and cities like Portland (with an established urban growth boundary), force developers to become more economical, and creative with the space they've been provided. Development still happens, it just doesn't happen on the sprawling, pointless level it does in towns like, say, Phoenix, Arizona.

  8. I'm sensing that Jordan is beginning to bond with Phoenix.

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  10. @John Pattison- I definitely understand what you're saying, and our priorities are def. the issue at hand.

    It's interesting because your post made me think more about the sense of entitlement that we have as a nation in regards to how our space is used. Europe tends to pack everything into a small space because they have to. We, on the other hand, have this tremendous space and try to use every last inch of it.

    I would be VERY interested in looking at the juxtaposition you mentioned. I think that would give a very interesting result, and probably open a lot of eyes.

    Like Jordan, I live in Phoenix now, and the urban sprawl is ridiculous. It reminds me of a few posts here on Burnside that discussed how much space we use vs. how much space we need. I've heard Texas is very similar with it's infinite suburbs.

    So what do we do next?

  11. Dang. Birmingham is one of my favorite sprawls. I remember when it was just a dirty town that we drove through on our way to better places, like the shining Gulf Coast. I kind of like the gleam of B'ham now.

  12. Jarrod,

    Insightful, well-written response.

    You ask "What do we do next?" That is a great question. I might think about it today and post some thoughts here. What do YOU think we do next?


  13. Jarrod, can you elaborate on what you mean about the infinite suburbs of Texas? I live in the Dallas area, and there are definitely suburbs. I don't know about infinite, though. When I lived in the DC area, it seemed to me that the suburbs there went on to a much larger degree. So I'd be interested in what you meant.

  14. John, I read this yesterday and I'm still thinking about it. I guess it sort of took "space" up in my mind. So I thought I would just say thanks.

  15. @james- I've never been to Texas, which is why I said "I've heard" so I can't give you a first-hand account. And without that first-hand knowledge, feel free to correct me if I'm wrong. I have friends that have told me about driving for hours and feeling like they've gotten nowhere because all they pass is another developed community, or strip mall. I've also never been to D.C. so I can't make a comparison.

    Here in Phoenix the building never ends. And like Jordan said, the development happens on a "sprawling, pointless level". It takes me an hour and a half to get across the valley...if there isn't any traffic.

    Let me know if I need to correct my friends:)

  16. @john pattison-
    I'm thinking about it too. I'll get back to you tomorrow.

  17. Jarrod, i would say that's true of the Dallas area, which is why it's the largest urban area in the US, in terms of population, behind NYC, LA, and Chicago. It's also true of Houston's metro area, but Dallas and Houston make up only a small part, geographically speaking, of Texas.

    The DC area is much more like what your original description is like than either Dallas or Houston. And I haven't been to New York, but it seems that any city that has suburbs in 3 other states would qualify.

    But that's just me. I'm not being argumentative, but just wanted to understand what you were saying.

  18. What do we do next? I have no idea…and God.

    This concept that we are looking at has a billion different elements involved, and all should be discussed, but the rabbit trails and dove tails could take a while to work through. The past and present economy, crime, capitalism, white flight, credit dependence, and ego all play a part. But I don’t think these topics are where change happens.

    A while ago a post on Burnside discussed why we feel the need to buy a 3,500sq.ft house, when 1,000 would suffice. I love the idea of this, and I think it is on this most basic individual level that we will see change created. It’s great to see corporate regulations regarding commercial development and land usage, but it ends up being spearheaded by a few special interest groups that are a thorn in the side of these development companies. But if these same companies could see that on an individual level Americans want things to be done differently I think it would make a much bigger impact. So instead of the developers being blocked by taxes, regulations, lobbyists, or protestors, we would individually just quit “buying big”.

    The problem comes when we see ourselves as masters of our domain more than stewards of that which God has given us. We have a sense of entitlement that is hard to shake, and a desire to be greater than or equal to those around us.

    The bigger problem comes when we are rooted in the temporal, as opposed to the spiritual, realm. When the greatest heights we achieve are measured in square footage, our goals are not nearly lofty enough. When happiness comes from the things we can finally afford, or at least finance, we have no idea what true happiness is. I know that I have to fight daily not to be a materialistic jerk. I always have to remind myself that life is eternal, and as such, my attempts at opulence squander my passion and lay waste to my time.

    As God works on our hearts (or the economic crisis works on our wallets), I believe we will return to a more community-style living. We will see a shift to a more historical extended family living experience. We will buy locally, waste less, find alternate methods of transportation, share what we have in abundance, and graciously accept that which we don’t. When we focus on the hearts and souls of ourselves and those around us, we won’t have any time left to worry about the biggest house, the fastest car, or the latest toys.

    So, what do we do next? We get our hearts and minds right, and become ambassadors of the change we want to see in the world around us. We let God move our hearts closer into alignment with His, and as we follow His paths the priorities you pointed out will change as well.