Boosted by a growing middle class, the shopping mall is booming in Central and South America.

Much has been made of the death of the North American mall. It isn’t hard to see why: Dozens of malls have closed over past decade and an estimated 25 percent of the roughly 1,100 still alive in the U.S. are projected to close by 2022. Developers haven’t built a new mall since 2006 (except for one in the bizarre land of Sarasota, Florida). But in Central and South America, it’s a very different story: Developers spent the past decade throwing up as many malls as investors will allow.

From Monterrey to Montevideo, an unprecedented explosion in Latin American mall construction is underway. According to one study, an estimated 100 new malls were built in 2016 alone. Today, the largest mall in the western hemisphere is in Panama.

Shoppers ride escalators inside a mall in Vina del mar, Chile
Shoppers ride escalators inside a mall in Vina del mar, Chile © Rodrigo Garrido/Reuters


[B]eyond retail, Latin American malls often house other major employers, including call centers, healthcare facilities, and office space. (In this sense, they are closer in spirit to the original vision of Austrian architect Victor Gruen, designer of the first enclosed shopping centers, who saw his creations as mixed-use hubs, not “gigantic shopping machines.”) On a typical weekday, a food court is full of uniformed employees instead of stay-at-home parents and truant teenagers. More and more, apartments and condos are being included in these malls. This diversity of uses and users could make them more sustainable in the long term.

On the flipside, it’s also not uncommon to find malls completely dedicated to products or industries other than clothes: In Guatemala City, one can find entire malls dedicated to fine dining and interior design. Both arrangements remain rare in the U.S. and Canada.

When we feel nostalgia for malls, maybe what we’re really feeling is nostalgia a time when incomes were rising and the quality of life of average people was improving. Today, that’s what’s happening in much of Latin America. But as their mall era begins, and the American one fades, enthusiasts of the format might hope to find a more enduring model for the mall’s future down south—and we should change land use policy to reflect that.