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What the decline of American shopping malls means for social space

People spend the majority of their lives in one of three places. The first is the home, the second is the workplace, and the third is any other social space.

Those “third places” are critical for relationships. Ray Oldenburg introduced the concept in his 1989 book The Great Good Place.

In their best iterations, third places are the building blocks of community — think public libraries, local cafes, or the neighborhood barbershop. But when Americans started building and moving into new suburbs in the 1950s, they had a problem. There weren’t enough social spaces to hang out with friends or meet their neighbors.

“The problem with our society since World War 2 is that the government ruined community by single-use zoning,” Oldenburg told Vox. “There are no places that people can get together where they live. It’s the dumbest thing in the world.”

So where did suburbanites go? Cue the mall music.

At the same time suburbs were being built, the first indoor shopping malls were designed. They were supposed to be the idyllic community centers for the suburbs.

Between 1970 and 2017, the number of American shopping malls quadrupled. It was the golden era of the mall. So many were built that they became de-facto social space for America’s suburban youth.

But 60 years later, social connections form as much on apps like Instagram or WhatsApp as they do in real life. And as more Americans do their shopping online, the predicted “shopping mall apocalypse” will eliminate a prolific, albeit imperfect, third place.

The decline of the mall though doesn’t need to be the death of the third place. Watch the video above to find out why.

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