Intensification of the Suburban Mall

Following World War II, the suburban population in North America exploded. Economic expansion catalyzed an exodus from cities and consequently created a need for new services and amenities in these newly formed ex-urban areas. The result was a massive proliferation of a new concept called Shopping Malls. First appearing in 1956 in Minnesota, these fully enclosed shopping complexes served entire regions and were rapidly adopted across North America in parallel with the rise of highways and car culture.

Sixty years later, many of these shopping centers are in a state of decline. And while super-regional malls in Canada are growing; quasi-regional malls are struggling. As cities have expanded, the areas surrounding the malls have become more urban. As the buildings have aged, they require renewal. As cultures have evolved, their initial appeal has waned and shifted to less monolithic shopping focused experiences in favor of more diverse use that integrate public and private spaces, encourage walkability, and create greater connectivity to surrounding communities.

Our unique blend of high-density residential work with retail and restaurant design has placed us in a position to meaningfully contribute to the reimagination of this typology- the mixed-use redevelopment of the suburban mall. This new model makes the visibility and feasibility of new development key in the rendering and phasing of a consumable food retail and leisure experience rooted in architectural rigor. It’s alchemy. Tall buildings, public spaces, and commercial spaces must be woven together where the whole is greater than the sum.

Our experiences with Don Mills, Cloverdale, Dixie, Golden Mile, and Agincourt Malls have formed an ongoing and evolving body of work and have allowed us to glean a set of 5 accessible principles that inform our work.

Community engagement in the design phase.
  1. Cultivated Transformation: Rejects the ‘one-size fits all’ approach, not a transplant of intensely urban ideas. It’s a place specific transformation that leverages the contextual fabric and becomes responsive infill. It’s designed to leverage the specificity of its surroundings with respect for and cues from the neighborhood where it happens.
Goldenmile Mall advertisement.

2. Inside Out: Parks, streets, and squares provide opportunities to gather and become room-like, outdoor public spaces. Bigger is not better in that there can be intimate and smaller spaces with a finer level of design. Finally, these amenities provide ways to bridge different parts of these projects, so they are more walkable and connected.

Golden Mile Plaza Theatre opened in 1954 and was one of the last business operating within the larger Golden Mile Plaza before it was redeveloped.

3. Retail as Catalyst: What does retail driven mixed use look like? With the rise of online shopping there is a decreased demand for shopping in person. By designing the experience rather than just a space to display product, there is more reason to visit in person. These spaces that host events and festivals serve as further motivation for public gathering.

4. Start at Centre: The role of the car is changing with the typical mall. Rather than conceive of these spaces as big boxes surrounded by seas of parking, they can be seen more as a continuation of the surrounding neighbourhood fabric. Bringing people in to visit restaurants changes the dynamics of the space and, in the instance of Don Mills, catapulted the shops into successful retail spaces. While the concept of an outdoor mall is less familiar in a Canadian context, this focus on placemaking has resulted in more value creation.

5. Perfect Mix: A blend of different types of spaces and interventions creates a more unique and visit worthy experience, which one might call ‘Episodic Architecture’. Rather than homogenous functional retail spaces, architecture that leverages a mix of uses and scales can provide individual expression to these places that help spark a joyous chaos of everyday life.


Together, these principles shape a reimagination of the historic suburban mall model. Rather than aggravating a persistent break in the continuity of the neighborhoods where they are located, they become catalysts that infuse these places with economic, social, and spatial vitality.