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A strip mall is a collection of several stores located in the same building that share a common parking lot. Typically, they contain stores like drug stores, small grocery stores, fast food restaurants or small independent cafes. The building is often located at a major intersection in a town or city and is normally most easily accessed by car. Due to a typically high volume of traffic, bicycling or walking to a strip mall can be difficult.
Another type of strip mall or mini-mall, often called a power center, contains a "big box" store, like a Kmart, Wal-Mart, or Target. They usually have additional stores, perhaps a grocery store, bookstores, pet supply shops, electronics retailers, or a variety of other retail establishments and fast food or chain restaurants. Normally, the power center is also located in a traffic-congested area, near a major highway or intersection and, like the smaller version, it may be difficult to access on foot.
Strip malls differ from the larger shopping mall because they usually contain fewer retail outlets and are open instead of closed structure. Early ones might be welcomed as convenient but were often considered eyesores. The earliest versions usually did not exhibit uniform architecture and were just a collection of buildings, making them unattractive spots. With the rise of the big box store, a strip mall is now more likely to have uniform architecture, where all buildings have a central theme or resemble each other, making them more aesthetically pleasing.
One of the primary concerns about these shopping areas is that they are sometimes built side by side. A drive through certain streets in most large suburban cities can feature one after another. In addition, the fact that they can really only be accessed by car means that they tend to increase traffic in areas that may already have heavy congestion.
Since access to the strip mall by car is easiest, some people are concerned about the transition from walking and use of public transportation to an overdependence on individual cars, resulting in added fuel consumption and pollution. This has led some architects to design live/work environments that often incorporate condominiums or apartments among the stores or right next to them. The trouble is that not many people would choose to live next to these stores, since they are so close to highways or traffic congested areas. Frequently, these living spaces are turned into low income housing, which is associated with a higher level of crime. This in turn may make the strip mall less safe. Some live/work spaces that are farther from high traffic appear to be quite successful.
Despite the concerns about the strip mall as a city feature, they are unlikely to disappear. They do pose a greater convenience than does mall shopping, since shoppers can park near the store they want to visit and not have to enter other structures to get to the one store. Even though people can find the stores convenient, they may also find them ugly.
It appears that the "big mall" concept in a lot of cities has been replaced by the "big box store or stores anchoring smaller shops" concept. There are some possible advantage to that. For one thing, there is some flexibility in the design and some space savings might be realized as you're concentrating on a facility that houses a lot of outward-facing stores rather than a huge, enclosed structure.
A big disadvantage is that access to the stores is outside, so shoppers are offered little protection from the elements.
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