Archive for urban retail trends

Pink Slime and Sprawl

I apologize for being late to the pink-slime-in-meat discussion, but unlike 99% of blog post ideas that fail to make it to cyberspace, this one keeps weighing on my mind.

I’ve been pondering the relationship between really poor quality food and an auto-centred lifestyle.  Here’s how I think the link works:

The mid-20th century suburban style of housing development separated houses from grocery stores, allowing for larger grocery stores.  It also required a car, which costs money, and time to drive everywhere including to ever-expanding supermarkets.

To keep costs down, supermarkets supported innovations in industrial food supply, including for meat.  This allowed shoppers to afford meat and cars and gasoline.

As Penelope Truck recently commented, meat (especially beef) should be a luxury good but it is not priced like one. She’s right.

I didn’t think that much about the broader role in society of the inexpensive cost of supermarket meat until an organic butcher shop opened 1 block from my house. All the meat comes from animals raised humanely on one ranch about 400 miles away.  It is at least 3X the price and at least 10X as tasty as the supermarket equivalent.

This new butcher shop has been successful in a Walkscore 100 neighbourhood.  I don’t think this is a coincidence.  One reason so many people in this economically diverse community can afford to buy their meat at this butcher shop is that they don’t drive much.


Building suburbs in “the city”

Are some cities starting to transform into suburbs?  Here’s how I see the dynamic (and then I welcome your responses):

Aside from their frequent auto-dependence, suburbs often offer the characteristic of “sameness.”

  • Homes in each subdivision all tend to be the same, or at least very similar.
  • The same type of people tend to purchase them–one subdivision will be popular with young native-born middle-class families while another will attract more immigrant families and still another older families or empty nesters.
  • The nearby retail, chain-based big box or strip centers.

This is often contrast with life in many traditional inner-urban neighbourhoods:

  • Homes reflect a variety of architectural styles, stemming from the different decades in which they were built.
  • Because of the different eras when various owners bought into the neighborhood, a wide range of people live there.
  • Retail also may have evolved gradually, with ownership fragmented into small units, often family owned, which tends to support more independent retailing and fewer chains.

More recently, to combat sprawl, many cities are re-zoning large swaths of industrial or commercial land into high-density residential.  But what gets built in many ways resembles the suburbs in character.  Buildings and units look very similar; everyone buys in at the same time so will tend to be of similar backgrounds; and the large retail chains scoop up the retail spaces.  Put all this together and you get a suburb in the city, even if the residents take transit to work and live in condos.

My question to urbanistas is whether this matters?

My thought is that it  could. Recent research on Generation Y suggests that this cohort group prefers to consume from smaller, independent businesses and organizations.  This new generation of talent may not be as attracted to vertically-oriented suburbs as they are to more authentic neighbourhoods.    Moreover, if the knowledge economy really needs creative inspiration, are you going to get it in these new milieus?

On the other hand, this style of development may be the only way to quickly offer more housing options in the city. Perhaps it’s not ideal, but it’s the way cities will develop.

Supermarket parking lots as new neighbourhood hubs

Could supermarket parking lots in now-dense urban areas become public squares? or be re-designed as great public places in other ways?

Neal Pierce recently penned an intriguing piece about supermarkets on

We perfected the buy-and-drive model from the post-World War II expansion onward. But is it necessarily the future?

No, asserts my Seattle friend and urban design planner, Mark Hinshaw. He sees a dramatically transformed role for supermarkets. They’ll actually become the anchors of new and walkable neighborhoods, he predicts in a Planning magazine article co-authored with markets analyst Brian Vanneman.

Why the shift? Americans’ high personal consumption levels were starting to wind down even before the Great Recession. Households have shrunk in size and the population is aging, with more taste for close-by shops and facilities. Many young people are eschewing the scattered suburban pattern in favor of denser urban living. Buying a house on the urban fringe, once seen as a ticket to wealth-building, now looks to be a big risk. Walking for health and weight loss has begun, for many Americans, to outshine the sedentary lifestyle of using an auto for every conceivable errand. And many people are looking for ways to reduce their carbon footprint.

Neighbourhoods that offer the option of walking to do one’s errands have grown in popularity for all the reasons cited above.  In some places this has resulted in homes (including town homes, mid rise and high rise buildings) now surrounding what used to be a more isolated supermarket with a massive, attached parking lot.

In these cases, it seems that turning this space into something more could be great for everyone.

  • If additional small stores or service businesses were added to the space, it would attract more shoppers–great for business.
  • If there was some public space like a small playground, or a sitting area to enjoy one’s coffee, people would come to connect with their neighbours and not just to shop.
  • And if this space connected to other walkable–perhaps retail–streetscapes, more customers would be drawn in.

The owner of the supermarket and parking lot could also benefit through increased property values or options.  A redevelopment of the space might allow for the creation of office or residential space above.

To be sure, parking would still be required at these new versions–sometimes the groceries you need to get are heavy and the car is the logical option–but perhaps fewer spaces, or underground.

While many suburban supermarkets-and-parking lots will likely remain auto-centric destinations for a while.  There are places where density has grown up around these expansive uses and the whole community could benefit from the “accident” of having a big empty space that can now be used for community building rather than parking.

Will there be corporate resistance to smaller homes

Since World War II, the North American landscape has been remade to suit the automobile.  Urban spaces often languished (with notable exceptions) in favour of suburban spaces, spread out such that driving and automobile ownership became necessities.

A tremendous automotive-industry lobby contributed to this phenomenon.  Government built roads provided a massive subsidy to the motor vehicle industry.  Moreover, the automotive industry specifically lobbied against transit plans.

The “Fordist” model of human organization that prevailed also included growing numbers of Malls, Power Centres, and stand-alone big-box stores where suburban residents did their shopping (by car, SUV or mini-van).

Therefore, assuming this “Great Reset” is occurring, the shift toward more urban living, less automotive use, and living in smaller spaces is going to threaten the general profitability and size of a wide range of companies and industries.  Shopping without a car and living in a smaller home will likely mean buying less — unless it’s totally disposable, which generally goes against the ecological sensitivities that many people share today.

Will the large retailers and makers of products now widely consumed adapt (assuming this is possible) or fight the tide?

Will economic patriotism improve cities

In the United States there is notable talk about how people should be buying American, with some trying to have this enshrined in official policy. Economix this week pondered whether this economic patriotism was uniquely American (I doubt it).

Meanwhile, Richard Florida comments on a “home base” effect that certain brands have. Starbucks peforms best in Seattle, for example.

If the economic downturn has people thinking more about where they spend their money, this might be great for cities. Or, more specifically, great for neighbourhoods and community building in cities.

What makes a place special, is that it can offer something unique.  The world has become rather homogenized — McDonalds, Coke, Starbucks can be found everywhere.  But a local coffee rostery, micro brewery, independent grocer, funky clothing store or a tasty bakery are examples of businesses that help to create an authentic place, rather than a generic retail space.

If the economic downturn pushes more people to spend their money in ways that benefit their local communities, this could help the livability of cities — and help them attract visitors and permanent residents alike.

Unfortunately, I think that application of the “support local” principle will be unevenly practiced.  The lure of Wal-Mart and the big boxes will tempt many, especially in more frugal times.   This will leave some neighbourhoods full of interesting, independent businesses and others reliant on global boxes.

Are you or people in your community shopping local? or has the lure of the mega-discounter prooved too tempting?

Wal-Mart, the Independent Retailers, and the Recession

Two interesting phenomena seem to be happening in this downturn: Wal-Mart is thriving but so is shopping local.  On the latter: Richard Layman from Urban Places and Spaces Blog notes that he has been:

somewhat more conscious and [shopping locally] myself, such as buying toys as gifts from Sullivan’s Toy Store on Wisconsin Avenue NW, or baby-related stuff for friends, at Now & Then, a gift shop in Takoma Park.

He refers to a Seattle Times article on the subject.  In some neighbourhoods the local stores are doing well, while elsewhere the independents are closing.

Local shopkeepers say they’re also seeing people … who are financially stable and want to help. “People really want to support their local stores, because if they don’t, we’ll all go away,” said Muriel Monteiro, owner of the Lola Pop clothing store on North 35th Street in Fremont….

In Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, shopkeeper Craig Keister recently hung up signs saying “Uncle.” His Mandrakes Antiques store will close at the end of this month after 20 years in business. Other recent Ballard closures include Annabelle’s Consignment and All the King’s Flags.

So, we have Wal-Mart thriving, some independents thriving, and some going bust.  Here’s my theory.  Shoppers are indeed thinking critically about what they are buying, and where.  Presumably this leads some to Wal-Mart and other big box discounters while others head to local stores.

What we also need to consider is that it may be the same people, in many cases, supporting both.   They buy some more generic products at the discounter, leaving extra disposable income to support the local stores.

The New York Magazine also offers a theory about why certain independents will survive: they will improve customer service.

Service, an all-but-forgotten notion in the boom years, is now an essential means of survival. The name of the game is regulars—creating new ones and holding on to old ones. Restaurateurs are plying customers with amuse-bouches, managers are visiting and revisiting tables. Stores are offering free gift wrapping and delivery. Shopkeepers who once treated customers with haughty indifference now practically sprint to the door to greet them. Henri Bendel recently gave away brownies.

Is Costco really a threat to Manhattan?

Or is Manhattan more of a threat to Costco?

For years the discount warehouse retailer Costco has been looking for a site in Manhattan. According to the New York Sun, they may have found one. But there is vocal opposition from residents, politicians and even some unions.

Much of the rationale behind opposing it seems to be that a Costco-type store won’t work: That Manhattan doesn’t offer the types of shoppers or the automotive access that Costco requires. This may be true, but shouldn’t that be Costco’s problem? Presumably, they’ve done their research and think there is a way to survive.

Let’s look at a few of the other reasons why some New Yorkers are opposed to Costco:

1. That it may challenge local family-owned businesses supported by the walkable nature of most neighbourhoods. I have a hard time believing that the opening of one Costco will transform the way New Yorkers live and shop.  This argument doesn’t work for me:

  • People choose Manhattan because of the densely packed variety of amenities that you can walk to.
  •  If you live in such a neighbourhood, getting in a car to go to Costco is inconvenient. You’ll only go (if you are a Costco shopper) every month or two to stock up on a few bulky things like toilet paper, paper towels or diapers.
  • Most people in Manhattan live in small apartments.  A lack of much home storage space means that buying in bulk is not practical. It’s easier to shop daily or every few days and leave the storage of most food and other products to your local small supermarket rather than finding space in your own 900 s.f. apartment that you share with 3 other people.
  • Perhaps Costco’s target market is businesses stocking free snacks for kitchens in the office towers rather than people buying personal items?

2. Costco will generate more traffic and make the area even more congested and slow. Again, this may be true but Costco must believe that its shoppers will come at off-peak times or would be driving by anyway.  If it’s that hard to shop there, no one will do it.

As some North American cities welcome more people and higher densities into certain areas, more “big box” retailers like Costco will attempt to enter these captive markets.  Some will face considerable opposition; others will be welcomed or enter more quietly.  I predict, all will need to adapt their styles and even philosophies in order to thrive.

Gasoline prices: keeping shoppers closer to home?

Americans drove 11 billion fewer miles in March 2008 than in March 2007.

This suggests that either people are carpooling to work, not going to work, or making fewer and shorter pleasure trips — or all of the above. This should affect shopping behavior and by implication metropolitan retail patterns.

Combined with the slowing economy, presumably many people are shopping less. But are they shopping differently?

Many blogger-pundits seem to think that high gasoline prices will help create more sustainable urban environments with people shopping locally. I’m wondering if this is really the case.

Are more people supporting retailers — particularly grocery or food stores — closer to home rather than driving to a distant Wal-Mart Supercenter or Whole Foods Market? Or, are they shopping in the same stores but going less frequently and buying more while there?

I’m going to be looking for answers to these questions.  In the meantime:

Has the high price of gasoline changed your shopping habits?

(They haven’t changed mine, but I live a block from a good shopping street, particularly for groceries, so have been shopping on foot for years. )

Blaming fast food outlet proximity for obesity

According to a UCLA study (found via Planetizen):

Higher rates of diabetes and obesity occur in neighborhoods — regardless of the residents’ income, race or ethnicity — where fast-food restaurants and convenience stores greatly outnumber grocery stores and produce vendors, according to a statewide study released today.

But is this correlation the same thing as saying that fast food outlet proximity causes obesity?

Or, could we say instead that communities with high numbers of obese people attract fast food restaurants?

Actually the study offers two intriguing countermeasures regardless of causality.  Requiring fast food restaurants to post calorie and fat content information is one, which is fairly obvious and not directly about cities.

The other suggestion is for cities to look at zoning restrictions.  That is, use city bylaws to limit the spread of fast food.

While I’m not sure this is that feasible, the broader point is worth pondering.  I would ask: In what ways do city development guidelines and urban infrastructure support fast food outlets at the expense of green grocery stores and other types of food vending.

For example, consider the size of commercial spaces.  In some older urban neighborhoods, store fronts are small and each 25 foot space (or less) is often separately owned by a different family.  This structure tends to support small family run cafes, delis, grocery stores etc.  In newer neighborhoods the average retail space is huge — the only business that can afford it is a big chain grocery store (meaning a neighborhood would only have one grocer instead of many) or a fast food chain.

Also, the study did not examine walkability, which is also related to urban structure.  Are there sidewalks?  Does the city allow and support commercial zones within walking distance to most people?   From this study’s results, one could surmise that the neighborhoods with more grocery stores than fast food outlets are also more walkable than the others.

Floating semi-cities?

The Creativity Exchange ran a post this week about The Freedom Ship – a floating city complete with airport, university, office space, and residences priced from $180,000 to $44 million.   The Freedom Ship is supposed to circumnavigate the globe every 12 months, which seems a little challenging — those Atlantic and Pacific storms might be tough to endure.

However, the idea of a stationary floating urban space is intriguing.

Many prosperous world port cities face obstacles to economic and demographic growth from geographic constraint.  Being able to add space off shore could prove valuable.  Here are some ideas for floating urban spaces:

1. A regular suburb.  You would reach it by boat or air, with frequent regular shuttles connecting it to the main city.  The space could contain a park, playground, restaurants, a grocery store, and other amenities that would make it as workable as any bedroom community suburb.  The advantage of living here would be great views, fresh air, and perhaps a short commute to work downtown.  This wouldn’t need to be as big as the floating freedom city, so could fit offshore in many coastal metropolis.

2.  A floating business park, or single occupancy company campus.  Companies like Google, Microsoft, Cisco, Electronic Arts are well known for their university-like campuses containing hundreds of thousands or even millions of square feet of office and amenity space.   As they expand, it becomes harder to find contiguous space.  Moreover, to attract and retain talented people, many of these types of companies face the issue that their employees want to live downtown or in a cool dense, urban area rather than an outlying suburb (ie San Francisco not Mountain View, Vancouver not Burnaby or Surrey).  Perhaps a solution is a floating company campus near to downtown with regular shuttles from major transit hubs and/or urban population centers.  A floating campus could offer great views, lots of natural light and air, and that special funky edge that might appeal to many workers.

3.  A floating “lifestyle centre-  A high end shopping mall and casual entertainment space such as cafes, restaurants, etc.  along with a limited number of residential units.  Served regularly by small ferries, the merchants would also offer free shipping to a pick up point at a parkade back at the mainland.  So you could shop, then have your parcels sent ashore while you enjoyed a light lunch.

4. A floating university campus.  The new trend is for universities to integrate themselves more into the downtown and broader urban scene.   But, downtowns and urban areas are often by definition full, leaving limited space to add classrooms.  Here’s a solution.

I haven’t looked at costs or feasability.  This is pie in the sky, but intriguing none the less.

Any other ideas?

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