Celebrating Strips Malls: Strength in Standardization


Our current urbanized form has become remarkably homogenous. Anywhere in Florida, and in much of the United States, one now experiences a new sense of sameness in the texture and the pace of places. America has entered a period of uniform buildings, roads, and infrastructure, differing only in the details. We live in a very standardized America today.

To witness the new homogeneity, look no farther than the commercial strips that have come to dominate the 21st century experience. These strips are our marketplace, our town square writ large, and are a study in careful, intentional uniformity. In commercial America, from New York to California, these strips are smoothly uniform in both their scale and their details to a startling degree, differentiated only by local geography.

This is the quiet strength of our country. Our commercial environment, although criticized for its aesthetic monotony, unifies our national experience. The endless asphalt strip expresses the contemporary American lifestyle, a way of ordering our space that represents our participation in the high-energy global economy. It’s ugly, but it works; so goes consumerism.

Businesses that compete for the customer dollar ensure familiarity and efficiency, and the uniformity extends to the design of the store, both inside and out. From the front door to the street, a precise series of moves are choreographed around the invisible practices of safety, security, and barrier-free flow from the car door to the cash register. All of these dictate uniformity of design, a certain monolithic character, which moves the customer effortlessly from merchandise to the point of sale to the driveway.

The driveway leads to the street. While we yearn for alternatives to the car, we still cling to its super mobility. Its influence results in a rigid, standardized design for all pavement. Lights, signs, intersections, and the pulse and rhythm of the road all become one. Gone, for the most part, are local eccentricities such as stoplights turned sideways; in their place are broad, well-lit roadways with the same signals everywhere, built with the future in mind. This, again, is a strength. Americans have always tended towards mobility, and standardization enables freedom of movement and a state of supermobility that is imagined, if not quite achieved.

Because America’s building industry climbed a series of regulatory steps in the last several generations, today’s built environment is more uniform and less specific to its particular locale, with a vague, broad national character that is barrier-free and safe. Starting with the 1992 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and continuing today with the International Building Code, standardization has become a quiet but powerful force.

The ADA sought to remove the localized, obstacle-ridden geography that restricted a large population with sensory or mobility difficulties from having access to buildings and places. Since its passage, a substantial portion of our constructed world has been built under these rules, and older buildings have been adjusted to remove barriers. The result of this act has been to cause much of America to look the same, from the way our sidewalks rise up from the street to the size of our public bathrooms.

Building codes became standardized, too. In the 1990s, three regional codes converged into one International Building Code. With the real estate development economy normalized at a national scale, it has become more efficient to deliver the same product everywhere, rather than customize an office or a store to local eccentricities. Building codes, which go back to Hammurabi’s time, have evolved into exquisitely complicated texts, annotated like the Talmud and as complex as the tax code. This sameness, again, allows super-mobility and comparisons of sales and productivity metrics from one place to another. It smooths the evolution of a new, migratory America. This again is a strength, if efficiency is any measure.

Local codes still customize structures to particular locales; California requires resistance to seismic activity, and Florida protects against hurricanes. A lot of idiosyncratic localisms — nuances that did little to protect anybody — have been done away with, however. A wood building in the Midwest, for example, was called a Type Five building, while in the South it was Type Six, with accompanying detailed descriptions differing in little details. These were all melded into one, wood-frame building type by the new code, simplifying national-scale construction and design, and eliminating wastefulness. This convergence of codes promotes a common system of definitions and measures of firmness and safety.

Intertwined with this rather massive regulatory convergence is, of course, the globalization of the economy. Standardization of materials is critical for manufacturers importing key products from overseas, and for assuring national real estate developers of similar costs from coast to coast. Sameness is a virtue, from an accounting perspective.

Should this sameness be doubted, interview any offshore visitor about their American experience. While American behavior may generate complaints, the American built environment inspires awe and respect. “Why can’t we have this in our country,” more than one international guest has bitterly questioned me, usually pointing to a clean, well-ordered aspect of place that we take for granted. “America,” stated one South American to me recently, “is still the safest place to buy real estate, because of your standardization.” Monotony and safety features make for a dull sense of place, but great property values.

How this came about is a study in our faith in the future. America has always had faith that things will get better, even in the darkest of times. This belief in the future seems lost today if one focuses merely on the surface, and the general deterioration of our national conversation. Our actions, however, are different than our words, and our actions – widening roads, consolidating codes, standardizing infrastructure – are those of a people in the process of perfecting our built environment. Only a people that cares about the future would be doing this.

American roads and buildings are not precious; we are not a sentimental people, by and large, when it comes to our physical environment. The American style of place is a product of our society’s character. It is barrier-free, safe, and guarded well against disaster. Our character transcends the superficial notion of “style” and is expressed in a uniform, shared sense of place. Monotonous, yes; as all standardization tends to become, but with a great value placed upon planning and design.

A positive byproduct of this style of place is equity. Roads (except toll roads) can be travelled by all, and buildings are built safely for all. Another is efficiency, speeding up the process of rolling out new infrastructure. A final byproduct is the future; we are giving our children’s generation a simplified infrastructure with one operating manual.

What our progeny does with our standardized environment is up, of course, to them. Uniformity is a tacit scaffold upon which a unique, more localized future can be built, celebrating the specific geography and society of each individual place. Suffocating monotony can perhaps give way to flexibility, creativity, and a character that expresses our diversity as we move ahead.

Richard Reep is an architect with VOA Associates, Inc. who has designed award-winning urban mixed-use and hospitality projects. His work has been featured domestically and internationally for the last thirty years. An Adjunct Professor for the Environmental and Growth Studies Department at Rollins College, he teaches urban design and sustainable development; he is also president of the Orlando Foundation for Architecture. Reep resides in Winter Park, Florida with his family.

Flickr photo by Payton Chung, Meanwhile in Ethnoburbia: the new Chinatown in California's San Gabriel Valley.