Green Roofs, Well-Being, and the Reinvention of Retail

Sourced from Chain Store Age - by Jim Anderson, DIALOG

Jim Anderson is the chair of DIALOG, a design practice of architects, urban planners, interior designers, engineers, and landscape architects that partnered with the Conference Board of Canada on The Community Wellbeing Framework. Obtain a free report at or contact Jim at

‘The word “mall” derives from a croquet-like game that was played in alleyways across 16th-century Italy. Later embraced as a street name in London for social clubs, it eventually came to be defined as “a long and open area where people can walk.” Today’s mall shows little semblance of its Italian Renaissance roots, yet a remarkable shift in societal values has left us less inclined than ever to go to a mall to buy stuff and equally reluctant to pass leisure time there.

As built-environment designers, we keep our eyes on what affects how people live, work, and play. Recently, we conducted a retail study to better understand the perspective of today’s shoppers. Of the 1,551 adults across all age groups surveyed, 66% saw malls as a place to buy goods and nothing more and 63% admitted to preferring shopping at malls to touch and see before making a purchase. This is nothing new. However, only 37% admitted to going to malls for the experience and just 29% believe malls provide a sense of community.

Why, in a world where people will increasingly invest their time and money for experiences and community, isn’t the heart of most North American cities providing the very thing consumers need, want, and desire most? When we consider a mall’s best assets–space and location–we have the ideal conditions in place to provide experiences and community. How do we fall short?

Digital media provide convenient alternatives to both socializing and shopping and a gander at the quarterly earnings of technology companies indicates trend is not likely to slow down. At the same time, the loneliness epidemic continues its ascent with nearly half of Americans viewing themselves as ‘always lonely’ and 18-to-22-year-olds being the loneliest generation among us. The mall, or its 21st Century iteration, holds untold potential to become a magnet for pulling us away from technology and engaging with our physical environments as human beings were designed, and are generally happy, to do.

We began exploring the relationship between well-being and physical spaces–the built environment–with an economics and public policy research organization three years ago. There are established metrics and techniques that allow us to evaluate the social, cultural, environmental, economic, and political forces that affect well-being and help us to make development decisions.

Creating spaces where people want to pass time, run errands, and shop does not need to be costly, wasteful, or complicated. It just needs to be creative. Structurally, think of a roof. Creating brand-new buildings today often means green roof installation is a no-brainer and in some cases a requirement. Beyond the environmental and economic benefits of green roofs for absorbing rainwater, providing insulation, and controlling temperatures, it has social and cultural benefits, too. Green roofs can be sanctuaries for nature and for socialization.

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