How Could We Repurpose Malls for Population Health?

I’m an 80’s girl.

The malls were everything when I was growing up. Minnesota is my home state, which is not only the home of the very first enclosed mall in the United States (Southdale!) but also the home of Mall of America. So, I can safely say I know my malls.

In 2018, though, malls across the U.S. are closing. Here in Vermont, a huge project is underway to re-vitalize the Church Street mall for the new century. There are a lot of different ideas out there about what to do with these malls – but, personally, I’d like to suggest that we repurpose malls for population health. This is the kind of healthcare disruption that breaks away from the traditional focus on hospital settings.

Health goes beyond medical care.

All the data show that, in order to help people live healthier lives, we need to understand the communities in which people live. Social and behavioral determinants of health have taken on new importance as we realize that medical care is not the best approach to preventative health.

In terms of healthcare disruption, designing communities to foster healthier people is about as disruptive as you can get. There are a lot of movements under way now to promote this (like this one) so here’s where I throw my own hat in the ring and describe what I’d like to see.

Malls are a perfect community space.

Malls are already in existence in suburban and many urban places throughout the United States. They have proven themselves to be a good gathering place for their surrounding areas and offer untold space for a variety of initiatives. They have good parking (still critical for all but urban areas). They are spacious, wheelchair-accessible and have the facilities to handle large numbers of visitors. Most malls offer both small, private spaces (the former retail spaces) as well as the larger, open courts that can host a variety of community activities.

What would make malls into a healthy community hub?

The minute we let go of a purely medical focus on health, the possibilities for a thriving community grow. And, indeed, community is an essential component of health. The current American emphasis on work and “success” above all else belies the human connection and support we truly need. Here are just a few of the ways we could use malls to facilitate physical and emotional health, while cultivating strong community bonds.

Medical
When people think of health, most first think of doctors and nurses. Since that will continue to be an important part of healthcare, malls should house a variety of medical services, such as:

  • Primary care
  • Urgent care
  • Dentists
  • Eye clinics
  • Ob-gyn clinics
  • Midwives
  • Therapists
  • Support groups

Nutrition
Nutrition plays a clear and direct role in the major chronic illnesses facing Americans today. Obesity, heart disease and diabetes are all impacted by what we eat. Therefore, malls could offer space for:

  • Nutrition experts
  • Cooking classes
  • Grocery stores
  • Food banks
  • Community gardens

Exercise
Exercise goes hand–in-hand with nutrition for its ability to impact health. Malls have large spaces that can provide all kinds of physical activities. For instance:

  • Indoor park
  • Walking and bike tracks
  • Skateboard park
  • Pool
  • Dance classes
  • Yoga

Community Activities
The isolationism that has taken over American life is not conducive to good health. We need to interact with people outside our own circle. We need to meet people from different backgrounds and cultures, different races and ages. We need to learn together and have fun together – that’s what creates community bonds. And those bonds are what helps us take care of one another. Malls could offer a home to all kinds of community activities, including:

  • Senior activities
  • Day care
  • Museums
  • Community theater
  • Dog park
  • Animal adoption (rescue animals and lower your heart rate!)
  • Gardening classes
  • Baking classes
  • Parenting classes
  • Art classes
  • Computer classes
  • Community college
  • Civics education
  • Meeting rooms
  • Games and sports (volleyball, basketball …)
  • Library

Wellness
For a population health focus to be successful, it needs to address some of the core wellness issues that people face. However, a few spa treatments never hurt anyone, either, so I suggest:

  • Massage
  • Day spa
  • Hair stylists
  • Diabetes education
  • Heart health classes
  • CPR classes
  • Smoking cessation classes

Town Services
A healthy community is an engaged community. Part of my vision of a repurposed mall is a town center, where people can access social services and take part in their government. This could include:

  • DMV
  • Voter registration and voting
  • Town meetings
  • Social services

Malls of the Future

By combining a wide variety of community and health initiatives under one roof, people will interact with each other more and foster greater ties to their community. They will also be coming together over nourishing and re-vitalizing activities, rather than for fast food and the fashion du jour.

I dream of the day when people do not need to drive to a mall to find community but, instead, live in areas planned to foster community right in the heart of their town. But, until then, repurposing malls to serve a broader, population health goal is a great option.