One of the most interesting things I ever picked up in a theology class is that ghosts and zombies are opposites. As human beings, we are made up of body (the physical form that makes us visible to the world) and soul (the essence that animates and moves us). So united are these natures that the idea of separating them is actually frightening; zombie movies illustrate the effects of animating corpses without souls, and ghost movies reflect what happens when our spirit or essence floats around without the body. Neither result is appealing. That’s because these two natures are interconnected in ways that we can’t even imagine. In a similar way, we can think about cities as having a body (the physical form and built environment) and a soul (the people and actions that give a city its life and energy). Just as in the case of human beings, each part is necessary and it is the combination of the two that creates a great place.
This past week, my wife, baby and I took a quick trip to visit relatives in the Denver area. When it got too cold for hiking, we turned to another of our favorite pastimes and visited Historic Downtown Littleton. Like many other historic areas, the built environment was pedestrian-oriented, complete with wide sidewalks and ornamental streetlamps. Buildings were one to three stories tall and closely lined the sidewalk. Small locally-owned businesses occupied each storefront. The combination of the walkable, human-scaled built environment and the unique independent businesses gave the area a certain charm and character, inviting exploration and casual lingering with friends and family.
On the way back home, we stopped by the big box strip with our hosts to pick up a few things for dinner. The juxtaposition of these two worlds was dramatic. In the historic downtown, space felt at a premium, with every parking spot and square foot of retail space feeling carefully thought out. The big box environment on the other hand was expansive in nature. Big stores, big shopping carts, big parking lots, all of which made the shopping experience easy and convenient to get in, get done, and then continue on our way. While the historic downtown was home to many local independent businesses, this auto-oriented strip was composed of the same national retail chains that we left back in Texas, a familiar and comfortable footprint that does not differ by location.
This difference was so striking that I couldn’t help but wonder why. What is it about the built environment of a historic downtown that makes it a good home for the small independent business but not as appealing to the national retailers? What is it about the auto-oriented development that attracts more national retailers than local ones?
Here are a few thoughts:
- The Financials of New Construction vs. Old Buildings: I once asked Rebecca Melancon of the Austin Independent Business Association what makes an area conducive to independent businesses. Her response was so simple it made me laugh: “Cheap rent.” Jane Jacobs explains it a little more thoroughly in The Death and Life of Great American Cities:
“If you look about, you will see that only operations that are well established, high-turnover, standardized or heavily subsidized can afford, commonly, to carry the costs of new construction. Chain stores, chain restaurants and banks go into new construction. But neighborhood bars, foreign restaurants and pawn shops go into older buildings. Supermarkets and shoe stores often go into new buildings; good bookstores and antique dealers seldom do.”
“As for really new ideas of any kind – no matter how ultimately profitable or otherwise successful some of them might prove to be – there is no leeway for such chancy trial, error and experimentation in the high-overhead economy of new construction. Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings.”
Since all development on the suburban fringe is, by its nature, brand new, the required upfront investment is simply too much for an independent business yet very realistic for the national retailer. Stacy Mitchell puts it best in Big-Box Swindle:
“Meanwhile, there are few opportunities for independent retailers in the suburbs. Housing sub-divisions that spring up virtually overnight require instant retail. Only corporate chains can provide this: a bog-box shopping center can be built and fully stocked in a matter of months. Putting down roots and growing with the community, as local businesses tend to do, is not an option on the fast-expanding suburban fringe. The financing behind most of these shopping center projects further ensures that not even small spaces will be available for independents.”
- Parking and the Stumble-Upon Effect: For large national retailers, auto-oriented development allows for easy access. Customers can get in and then get right back out. On the other hand, independent businesses without the same brand recognition benefit from being in a location where they can be stumbled upon and discovered. The key to the experience is parking. In the historic downtown, parking is treated as a shared public good. For the independent business on a tighter budget, on-street parking or parking garages managed by municipalities relieve a large financial burden, making rent more affordable. For the deep pocketed national retailers, however, the purchase of more land to build dedicated parking as a private and free good is well worth the investment to provide additional comfort and convenience for the customer.
In theological terms, the union of a body and soul is what makes us human. Similarly, in order for our cities to become great places of vibrant diversity, there needs to be a unified strategy that extends across the often separated fields of economic development and urban planning. The failure of recognizing this mutual-dependence between the built environment and the character of our business community has led to cities really struggling. Historic downtown areas which house the independent businesses that provide the unique character of the city are struggling because their physical built environment does not offer the convenient shopping experience of their auto-oriented counterparts down the road. On the other hand, auto-oriented cities are currently struggling with building an identity that is not cookie-cutter, distinguishable from other surrounding communities so to attract and retain talent and investment. Cities are not zombies and they’re not ghosts – and as such, they need us to do our part to foster the climate where our humanity can flourish.