Mall Walking, a popular though unofficial sport

18 July 2022

Shopping centre, photo by Steve Buissinne

Image courtesy of Steve Buissinne.

Say what you will about large shopping centres, those monuments to consumer greed with maze-like floorplans (quite deliberate by the way), but they have their adherents. And not just those hoping to be spotted in the queue as they await admittance to one of the centre’s luxury retailers either.

For a time in the 1980’s and 90’s large shopping centres were hugely popular among people looking for safe, sheltered, places to exercise, relax, and socialise, says Alexandra Lange, writing for Bloomberg.

It’s not hard to see why either, especially for avid walkers. The size of larger centres — where walkable floor space, split across multiple levels, can potentially amount to several kilometres — make for ideal all-weather exercise circuits, for those calling themselves mall walkers. Back in the 80’s and 90’s when the popularity of mall walking was at its peak, organised groups of walkers would descend on the malls daily, usually soon after opening time.

The mall, in its quiet early hours, provides affordances most cities and suburbs cannot: even, open walkways, consistent weather, bathrooms and benches. The mall is also “safe,” as Genevieve Bogdan told The New York Times in 1985; the Connecticut school nurse was “apprehensive about walking alone outdoors early in the morning before work.”

This is something I partake of during lunchbreaks, when I’m in Sydney, and working from the food court of a shopping mall in the city’s east. It takes about twenty-five minutes to complete a circuit, and on a quiet day I might go around twice. By my estimations, I might cover close to five kilometres.

While I’m not there so much post pandemic, I used to notice others clearly doing the same thing. I’d regularly see the same people, pacing the walkways, during what I supposed was their lunchbreak. I’ve also seen one or two people posting on Twitter, saying something to the effect of “I’m doing a lap or two of the centre.” I’m not sure if organised walking groups are present though, as I’m usually there later in the day, and it sounds like they’re active earlier on.

But the future doesn’t look hopeful for latter-day mall walkers, at least in the United States. In 2020, CNBC reported up to twenty-five percent of malls in America face closure over the next few years. I’m not sure what the outlook is for shopping centres in Australia. I would say we’ll see some closures, as American trends tend to copy over here, even if there’s a lag of several years.