BEYOND SHOPPING MALLS: A Green Evolution for the Suburbs

About the Author

Peter Trio spent his childhood on the farms, woods, and lakes of Minnesota. His professional experience is in green infrastructure, architectural detailing, and landscape design throughout the Midwest and California. Peter is the founder of The Thirdscape Initiative, which is focused on the evolution of our suburban landscapes to ensure they are socially productive, economically sustainable, and ecologically resilient.

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Thanks to the greater children and nature movement, access to nature is expanding to include more members of our increasingly urbanized society.

For several years, the National Park Service has recognized the need for an Urban Agenda to better serve marginalized populations. Rooftop gardens, green schoolyards,  community gardens, and adventure playgrounds have sprung up, fulfilling emerging needs in our cities from outdoor play to stormwater management and urban ecology. Even urban agriculture has taken root, reigniting a conversation on food systems.

Despite the challenges of higher population densities, industrial pasts, and a premium cost for land, many cities have transformed into models for sustainability, social diversity, and adaptability. At the same time, suburbs in the U.S. have failed to evolve to recast a relationship with nature and meet the needs of our children.

It is time we bring more of our suburbs and rural environments into the movement to reconnect children with nature.

While our cities have density and diversity, our suburbs have space, light, and air. With little retrofit, our suburbs have the opportunity for a greater degree of engaging environments, on a scale that cities would envy. Along with this potential, however, comes challenge. The automobile is the “keystone species” of suburbia and defends it’s territory ferociously. A second obstacle is the perceived notion between what is “human” and what is “natural.” There is a belief that we need to pack our family into a car and drive hundreds of miles in order to immerse ourselves in “pristine” nature. Yet, recent research points to the need for regular access to natural places for substantial benefit.

If we begin to view our suburbs as ecosystems themselves, we may find that they follow all the same laws of ecology as any forest or prairie.

Let us take a lesson from our children. When it comes time to play, children are less likely to get caught up in the nuances with what is natural and what is human. A puddle on the sidewalk is often more engaging than an expensive piece of playground equipment. A large street tree can become the perfect scouting tower. An abandoned parking lot makes for a cycle circuit free from the dangers of the automobile. A sandbox and some water can keep a child engaged longer than any video game. A stormwater retention pond is the perfect grounds for frog catching. Unfortunately, it is these very environments in which our children crave, that are fenced off and restricted out of fear of liability. It is our duty to ensure our children have equitable access to these environments. Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family…”.

Denying a child access to their surrounding natural environment is denying them a human right.

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Change is a critical component to the health of any ecosystem, this is known as succession. Change is not a new concept in the suburbs. As people fled the cities for the air, space, and light of the suburbs, they left something behind. In the 1960s, the Austrian Immigrant, Victor Gruen, identified the lack of community in suburbia. As a response to his discovery, Gruen introduced the first Suburban Shopping Mall in Edina, Minnesota. His vision spread like wildfire. In just a couple of decades, thousands of shopping malls were built across the United States. The thirst for community was therefore quenched and a tax base for the municipalities was established subsidizing a lifestyle of cheap energy, water, and gas.

Today, with changes in e-commerce another evolution awaits hundreds of malls across the country. As stores close, cities are scrambling to recapture a disappearing tax base while maintaining their aging infrastructure. Could the acres of asphalt parking lots surrounding these shopping centers and often concealing urban streams serve as the wild landscape our children crave?

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It can — and it has happened.  In 2009, a suburb outside of Frankfurt, Germany recognized a need for a park to serve the community. An abandoned airstrip from World War II was identified as the location for this new park. The municipality had a limited budget which could not support the construction and maintenance of a traditional park. It was determined that the extensive removal of the concrete tarmac would not be feasible. Instead, a Landscape Architect (GTL), was hired to script the breaking up of concrete in a way that daylit a stream below the tarmac. In a matter of a few years, an ecosystem emerged through the broken cracks. The large chunks of concrete became platforms for children to play on and allowed access to the ecosystem in a way that would not be possible had it just been raw nature. Today, the park serves a diversity of users including a Syrian Refugee camp.

It is encouraging that such urban wilderness transformations are happening with greater frequency. Earlier this year I founded The Thirdscape Initiative to demonstrate the potential of our suburban environments to evolve into socially productive, ecologically rich, and economically resilient communities, without the typical price tag of redevelopment.  We define a “thirdscape” as a place where free-willed nature of the environment fosters free-willed nature of its occupants. We’ll continue to document the qualities that make a thirdscape on Instagram @thirdscape and encourage anyone to use the #thirdscape to bring attention to those landscapes that are serving social functions omitted by those in a typical park. I invite those of you who have a suburban community ready to be invigorated with a thirdscape, or are in need of the preservation of an existing thirdscape, to reach out to me at or on Linkedin.

Photo credits: Peter Trio

Additional Reading & Resources 

Cronon, W. (1996). The Trouble with Wilderness: Or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature. Environmental History, (1), 7. 

Snyder, G. (2004). The practice of the wild

Eldredge, N., & Horenstein, S. S. (2014). Concrete jungle: New York City and our last best hope for a sustainable future.

Gruen, V. (2017). Shopping Town: Designing the City in Suburban America.


BRINGING NATURE IN: How Cities are Creating More Space for Nature

TRUSTING IN NATURE: Learnings from a Landscape Architecture Design Studio

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