The first prerequisite of community-building is hope because people without hope will not build. This fundamental rule of building applies from the scale of building personal relationships to the scale of building a nation.
We face a challenge in the US, the likes of which nobody born since the Great Depression has ever seen. Nearly everything we have built since the end of World War II was built according to the pattern of sprawl, where you separate everything from everything else and connect them all with highways so that we drive everywhere to get anywhere. This cannot continue… the costs of sprawl will soon become too great to bear. Already, our auto-dependent lifestyles are making us poor.
The core problem with sprawl is that we have built so much of it. Most of us live there now, so we can't just all walk away as fuel prices rise. The building of sprawl created much of the wealth of our nation for the past 66 years… the abandonment of such a mammoth investment would surely ruin us all.
So what do we do? We must find a way to recover from this addiction to auto-dependent lifestyles, and transform the subdivisions, strip malls, office parks, and industrial parks we have built into places that can be sustained in a healthy way, long into an uncertain future.
This blog will soon launch a 12-Step Program for Sprawl Recovery, but before we get started with that, let's think about the prerequisite of hope. Because without hope, we will not change. Today, some really smart people (whom I respect very highly for other reasons, by the way) have put together guidelines and rules of thumb which poison the transition from sprawl to sustainable places because they make it appear that most places have no hope of succeeding with their transformation.
The classic example of a poison guideline is the "corner store requirement." The best experts say that you can't even support a corner store with less than 1,000 homes… and for pretty much every other type of retail establishment, you need even more "rooftops."
What percentage of New Urbanist neighborhoods have been planned with 1,000 people within walking distance of the corner store? A tiny fraction… definitely less than 10%. Seaside, Florida, the first New Urbanist town, has less than 2/3 that many homes. So had these places followed the best experts' advice, roughly 90% of them (those with less than 1,000 homes per neighborhood) would have never even built the corner store. Seaside and all those other places would have been little more than pretty subdivisions with alleys and sidewalks. Following the best advice would have completely gutted the New Urbanism movement.
But what happened instead? Robert and Daryl Davis, the Town Founders of Seaside, were not burdened with that expert advice because there was no advice in 1980 on how to build a town… only on how to build a subdivision. So they set out, with planners Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, to figure it out. From then until now, they have created a legend.
Today, Seaside is a regional center for the coolest shops, restaurants, night spots, bookstores, and yes, a corner grocery. Daryl, who took the reins of business development at Seaside, did not know that what she was setting out to do was supposedly impossible. As a result, she has nurtured literally hundreds of businesses to life. Some have failed, of course, but some have also spawned multiple establishments across the region. None of this would have happened had Daryl been poisoned with the idea that you can't even support a single corner store without 1,000 homes.
The problem with these guidelines is that they are all built on the assumption of the continuation of sprawl. In other words, what can you build when there's thriving sprawl all around you, sucking customers away to malls, strip centers, and office parks? That was a fair proposition until the Meltdown, because until then, true neighborhoods were a tiny anomaly in the enormous American development machine. And if you were trying to do business completely embedded in that paradigm, it probably was a good idea to follow the rules.
But there have always been other ways of doing business and building places. There's more than one dial to turn, in other words. If you don't have 1,000 homes in your neighborhood, there are many other ways to make businesses work. For example, are you actually embedded in sprawl, or do you out in the country with a captive audience of neighbors that are more likely to do business with your corner store because everything else is too far away? If you're remote, you can make it on far less than 1,000 homes.
Do you have unusually cool shops, like Daryl is expert at creating? Are you the only nearby place that sells the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal? Does your corner store have the best espresso for miles around? How about the ice cream shop… can you build your own sundae? Does your grocer actually know you, and will she order the peach salsa you request, trusting that if you like it, others might do so as well?
All these things and many more are factors that make businesses work, when all the normal business models say they have no hope. That's because the business models are based on averages. But if you want to build a great place, you should probably be anything but average.
The same rule of thumb applies to sprawl recovery as well. If your neighborhood wants to transform itself to avoid sprawl's inevitable continuing slide in real estate values for decades to come, then your neighborhood needs to transform itself into something remarkable. Shooting for average doesn't create hope… working to be remarkable usually does. So be remarkable.
Note: This is the first in what promises to be an extended Blogoff on the viability of neighborhood retail. As other blog posts respond to this one, I'll list their links below.
Remember when I was talking about BlogOffs last week? Well, this is my first volley in the BlogOff about neighborhood businesses. What do you think?
Very interesting post Steve, thank you for offering to host this topic in more detail. I look forward to your thoughts on solutions sprawl as this has not, and continues to, impact us economically but also culturally. The two may even be more deeply linked than we expect. By that I mean that while we see a reduction in sprawl through the attempt at building New Urbanist neighborhoods, I also think that these places require not only population density but also a cultural re-think in order to succeed.
My fear is always that because we have so much space we will never quite learn our lesson and as soon as things "get better ie in the eyes of many back, to the way they were" we'll be tempted to keep on sprawling when the real answer seems to be to carefully fill in the gaps between concentrated areas with intelligently designed communities.
Can't wait to join the conversation.
Great examples! I look forward to the 12 steps!
6 k people live in my township -Stanwood -surrounded by farm fields. We must drive an hour South on I-5 to reach Seattle. I live "uptown" in a 4 story -54 unit - Condo. It seems almost everything is across the street - medical, dental, grocery, cinema, ACE hardware etc. Problem is the battery on my used Prius kept dying until the dealership said I had to drive the Prius at least twice a week. Since the local farms deliver fresh produce every other Friday (which I order over the internet) I often only drive the Car to the food Co-op in the next town 20 miles away every other week.
There is a nice sidewalk on which we can walk the mile over the hill from uptown to downtown in which all sorts of funky businesses and restaurants are located. Most teens here are rather skinny because they walk everywhere from their centrally located high school. It is only 3 miles from one end to the other end of town. At age 67 I have walked the whole distance and back.
There is only one hurdle with such condensed living - noise. I enjoy the shouts from the school yard next door and the train whistle a quarter mile away. Some of those trains will take me to Seattle so I don't have to battle the trucks and traffic on I-5. The kids and train sounds are only sporadic. The other noises can be mitigated by good manners and spending on some technology and materials. The most annoying is the H-Vacs on the roofs of the grocery store and local factory. I read these can be dampened. As for good manners - don't blast your car stereo and honk your horn unless really warranted. My neighbor below said the base on my stereo was disturbing her. I invited her in and said "let us be scientific". I turned on my Stereo and set the column at "42" which was loud enough for me and asked her to go down to her condo unit and call me to let me know it that was too loud. She was happy with that volume setting. Truth is "You Tube" videos come on at different degrees of loudness and I was not near my control to turn it down. I was busy doing something else. Now I know to be on my guard so my neighbors can enjoy peace and quiet.
Steve, we are all for enabling walkability, which means enabling walkable business!
The bottom line is not about whether or not urban form denies business success (although of course it can inhibit or support it). It's a question of good management - which includes everything from selecting one's location to finances and accounting to growth expectations to customer service.
There are dozens of articles and classes taught at small business development centers, but this list incapsulates the major reasons almost half of all business startups fail within two years (which can be examined in the context of walkability and sustainability):
I think retrofit offers a great opportunity for small startups that I would call "upstarts" because if they're smart, they can (and do) make it against all odds. Small business has many advantages over larger, more cumbersome companies. Neighborhood serving commercial is highly underrated in America. Witness where it works, for instance, in New Orleans where we have a very high rate of locally owned, successful small business imbedded in almost every neighborhood.
I'm sure you'll address one impediment, which are zoning, building and other codes that make small business development difficult if not impossible. A SmartCode that allows small scale retail at corner nodes within neighborhoods is a great first start, as are loosened rules concerning home business.
Keep up the great work, friend!
FWIW, in addition to Sandy Sorlien's initial post above, Hazel Borys has done a BlogOff at http://bit.ly/xwDVq3, Sandy has done another BlogOff at http://bit.ly/yzVOxa and Patrick Kennedy has just posted one at http://bit.ly/xDWWgP. Please join the dialogue! FWIW, here's the way we're doing the BlogOff: http://bit.ly/uO52bn.