How Ailing Strip Malls Could Be a Green Fix for U.S. Housing Crisis


An abandoned strip mall in Casa Grande, Arizona. Jim Parkin / Alamy Stock Photo

Urban designer Peter Calthorpe has a plan for the shuttered and financially troubled strip malls that dot the suburban landscape: Convert the malls into housing that would be part of green communities where people could be closer to their jobs and get out of their cars.

The U.S. housing shortage is so severe that demand outstrips supply by a stunning 3.8 million homes, according to Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored mortgage dealer. The shortage exacerbates homelessness, income inequality, and even climate destabilization, as greenhouse gas emissions increase while workers drive longer and longer distances between jobs and residences.

Peter Calthorpe, the heralded California-based urban planner, believes he knows how to lessen the housing and environmental crises at the same time. For decades, he has campaigned for more densely populated cities, rapid public transit, and an end to sprawl and reliance on cars, all tenets of the movement he cofounded, called New Urbanism. His books, including The Regional City: Planning for the End of Sprawl in 2001, as Metropolis magazine puts it, “define the recent history of urban design in its most vital and prescient manifestations.”

Now Calthorpe sees an opportunity in the economic wreckage left behind by the 2008 Great Recession. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, he notes that for most working families the pop of the housing bubble marked the end of “the American dream of the single-family home in a cul-de-sac and a couple of cars.” Since then, many tens of thousands of acres of commercial strip malls have fallen vacant or underutilized as consumers have relied increasingly on online purchases. As Calthorpe sees it, that’s land that could be occupied by millions of units of workforce housing, bringing workers close to their jobs, revitalizing streets and cities, and cutting carbon emissions in half. 05-18-22

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