In China, The Modern Shopping Mall Is Topped With An Urban Farm, Not With Cars

It’s part of a new self-sufficient neighborhood where cars could become a thing of the past. It’s as sustainable as can be–oh, except for how it promotes constant consumption.

In a new retail development under construction in Wuhan, China, typical mall stores like H&M and Zara will be topped with an urban farm. The reinvented mall is part of a large new neighborhood designed to be as sustainable as possible.


The neighborhood, built in a formerly industrial area, includes housing, offices, and parks along with the shopping center. In theory, people will be able to do everything they need to do in everyday life without every leaving the area.

“We’re making sure there are post offices, and banks, and dry cleaners, and all kinds of things that meet the needs of the residents so they don’t have to get in a car and go outside the community for those services,” says Arthur Benedetti, design principal for 5+design, the California firm the designed the mall and several other buildings in the development.

If residents do need to go farther away, or others come to work or shop, they can ride on a new tram or monorail. The development will also have dedicated bike parking–a rarity in China, where most bikes are parked on the street–and chargers for electric cars.

With terraces at each level, the five-story mall was carefully designed to bring visitors up to the urban farm at the top. “A lot of times you see projects with green space on the roof, but there aren’t a lot of uses there. So you really have a difficult problem drawing people up. Or if they go up there isn’t a lot to hold them there,” says Benedetti. The farm will have individual garden plots along with educational programs, and each terrace leading up to it will have smaller parklets with seating for restaurants.

The development is designed to meet LEED ND standards–meaning that in addition to considering factors like reducing transportation and energy use, every building meets a minimum of a LEED Gold certification for green building. Of course, it’s arguable that promoting constant consumption doesn’t help with sustainability; some residents will be able to take an elevator directly from their apartment into the mall, and another luxury mall will be sited nearby. But at least the developers have tried to encourage people to do something more than just shop.

“The mall that they’re building next to it is pretty much a typical mall,” says Benedetti. “We wanted to create more of a place to meet casually with friends and family. Spread throughout the exterior and interior of the project are these zones that create gathering spots for the community, and everything is connected to parks that lead to the waterfront.”


Perhaps new retail projects in the U.S. could take some inspiration from China. “I think what was developed in the U.S. and became a strong formula was then taken outside and really challenged and blown up,” Benedetti says. “We don’t have the transportation system China has–our people come in cars. Our malls are sitting in vast parking fields.”

In China, because property is so expensive, it’s typical for developments to be much more dense; a mall might be 13 stories high instead of two, and it’s much more common for developments to combine multiple uses. “In the U.S., malls are separated, and people are struggling to find other ways to bring people to them,” Benedetti says. “It’s interesting the way that the world has not only caught up to the U.S., but definitely surpassed us in the way that we define these retail spaces.”


About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.