In the “if life gives you lemons” mode, World Changing Seattle suggests that with the increased failure of malls in the stagnant economy, comes a New Urbanist opportunity to build new town squares.
I myself am a fan of New Urbanism (the effort to create architecture that spurs community building through walkable streets, a focus on pedestrians and public transportation rather than cars, mixed use developments, front porches, etc.). That said, as I wrote several years ago (“Leading a Civic Horse to Water“), largely because it is hard to do good analysis in this area, I think the evidence that New Urbanism produces more social capital is still rather weak.
The focus on malls for New Urbanism is not new. New Urbanism got its start in greenfield sites like Seaside, Florida.
But since then the movement evolved to focus on brownfield development (replacing old factories, and yes even malls) and infill development (overlaying New Urbanism on an existing urban site (often by redensifying corridors). Most recently New Urbanism had a role in thinking about the post-Katrina redevelopment (especially in Mississippi where Haley Barbour named New Urbanist-star Andres Duany to head a redevelopment task force. See some New Urbanist designs here for Cottage Square and Katrina Cottage VIII.
If New Urbanist architects and planners are successful it fits well with the fact that for many communities malls are their de facto civic spaces in a landscape that lacks any communal focal point: think the fact that many surburban communities lack a place for people to leaflet or think mall malkers and you get the concept of the shrinking civic space. It remains to be seen how creative and effective New Urbanist designers can be in converting a shrine to capitalism into a shrine for enlarging the human and civic spirit.