Where have all the shoppers gone?

This weekend, I spit up my coffee laughing at a Saturday Night Live segment lampooning over-the-top “Black Friday” sales events.

I wonder if future generations of Americans will laugh at this. As Seth Godin and others have observed, the era of race-to-the bottom retail pricing is coming to an end. Brick and mortar retailers who compete primarily on price are waging a losing war with online retailers. Will the shopping stampede mentality be recognizable in ten or twenty years? I doubt it.

Interestingly, this trend can be observed in real time. The Strong Towns weblog challenged its followers to document parking lot conditions on the Friday after Thanksgiving. A brief scan of the pictures uploaded using their #blackfridayparking tag shows countless acres of empty asphalt. (At a public meeting earlier I once heard a municipal engineer proclaim that requiring a parking lot to serve the maximum potential attendance for a stadium was like “building for Easter Sunday.” I wonder if he would extend this thinking to retailers.)

As a planner this trend leaves me with a few unanswered questions:

  • what will happen to this under-utilized retail space?
  • how much will retail employment shrink?
  • how will cities of the future link their virtual economies (online shopping) with physical spaces?

[p.s. the title of this post was inspired by the Paula Cole song, Where have all the cowboys gone?]

Seeing my neighborhood through new eyes

Three weeks ago, my wife gave birth to our first child. He is adorable and healthy. I could go on and on about the “wee bairn” as we’re fond of calling him. But I’d like to focus on another aspect of this experience for the moment.

Fortunately, I was able to take off some time from work to spend with my family during this special time. This meant that I started experiencing my neighborhood from a new point of view

During this time I got to understand the rhythms of weekday life on my street. As Jane Jacobs called it, “the ballet of the good city sidewalk.” For several days I observed the dog walkers, mail carriers, church goers, students, tourists, and other sorts of people traversing our street. I got to understand how disruptive events (like fire trucks racing away from the station or a neighbor power washing his fence) punctuated the relative tranquility.

I also started to see familiar places in my neighborhood from a completely different perspective. I found that my walking behavior changed substantially when I wore the baby on my body. I crossed intersections feeling more vulnerable and exposed. A crosswalk I would have eagerly approached in October seemed suddenly less hospitable.

In an age before the auto, it’s easy to imagine how my street would have fostered children playing. Tall trees provide shade. The houses face the street allowing parents to watch over the little ones. The brick road surface should slow down traffic. However these factors can’t fully overcome the visceral threat that parents feel about allowing children to play anywhere near streets intended to move cars efficiently.

Thankfully there are many people advocating to make public spaces suitable for children. A few years ago I learned about the 8 80 Cities organization which was founded by Guillermo Penalosa. They focus on creating great public spaces that work for 8-year-olds and 80-year-olds. Now more than ever I realize the importance of this mission.

The exponential growth of Savannah

I recently found a map of the municipal annexations of the City of Savannah. The animation below illustrates the growth of the municipality from 1838 to 1979.

(Note: some annexations in the map were combined to simplify the animation.)

This rate of growth starkly contrasts with Savannah’s first century as a city. During that period, city’s footprint grew in increments of wards.

Over the period shown in the animation above, the city’s population grew 12-fold from just over 11,000 (1840 census) to  over 141,000 (1980 census). In hindsight, I wish I had used GIS for this exercise so I could provide an accurate comparison of the change in land area over the same time period.

Paris Reborn

We fool ourselves into thinking that the problems of the today’s cities are isolated to the present era. In Paris Reborn, Stephane Kirkland examines the wholesale rebuilding of Paris during the French Second Empire (1852-1870) when the political, economic, and social forces aligned to allow Napoleon III to implement an unprecedented vision for urban modernization. This enormous project would have been impossible without Georges-Eugène Haussmann, the prefect of the Seine.

What struck me was how many of the issues facing Paris over a century and a half ago are still relevant in our contemporary debates about urban places.

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A day in Columbus, Georgia

Last week I visited Columbus, Georgia for the first time. Between sessions of the Georgia Planning Association’s (GPA) fall conference I had a chance to explore the downtown.

Public Spaces

I was surprised by the quantity and variety of public spaces in downtown Columbus. Some of these were attractive and well designed. Yet, in spite of this, I witnessed only a few people taking advantage of these spaces.

I would be interested to see these places at their most active times. It appears that the city can host quite a large crowd throughout its downtown and adjacent riverfront.

Walking the streets of Columbus felt like a city wearing over-sized clothes.  (Strangely, this trend was even present in my hotel room which felt vast and lonely.) In this respect it resembles many rust belt cities that have lost industry and population over a span of decades.

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Reclaim your neighborhood’s power

Your home is connected to a vast electrical power system. It’s often impossible to know precisely where your power comes from at any given time. While this system has worked well for decades, there is growing evidence that a clean energy revolution is coming soon.

I believe  communities across North America have a unique opportunity to reclaim control of the generation and distribution of their power sources at the scale of the city block.  There are two ways to accomplish this transition to block-scale power grids:

  1. Retrofit – reconfigure existing urban areas to take advantage of new technologies.
  2. Greenfield – build new neighborhoods hardwired for clean block-scale power.

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Sustainable Recovery Planning

A few days after the threat of Hurricane Irma passed, I was asked for my top three priorities in a situation where a city needed to “rebuild nearly from scratch” for a sustainable place capable of absorbing population growth.

As tropical weather events become both more severe and more frequent due to climate change, this question seems timely to me.

Focus on permanent humans needs and the human scale

In the wake of a disaster is easy to get distracted by fleeting demands for specific situations. There can be dozens of groups with special needs demanding attention. But in order to prepare for sustainability in the long run, I think leaders should focus on the things that are essential and unchanging human needs. These include: clean water, sanitation, access to food, and shelter. It is critical to organize these essential city building blocks in a scale appropriate for humans – all of the basics for an individual should be within a convenient walking distance (approximately within a half mile radius).

A mix of housing types should be provided to accommodate families and individuals. City leaders should consider suspending ordinances which are counterproductive to recovery efforts (such as zoning that artificially limits residential density or prohibits essential services or street design standards that prioritize automotive travel).

Where possible, neighborhoods should be arranged to accommodate incremental growth following a disaster.

Re-organize systems to the smallest feasible scale

Regional power, water, and food systems are inherently fragile and difficult to sustain without massive resource inputs. When possible, these systems should be re-organized down to the smallest feasible scale – this will improve the area’s ability to endure future threats. If your neighborhood can collect all the water it needs, then you don’t need to rely on a vast, hidden network of pipes and faraway water treatment plants. If your block can produce all the energy required using sunlight or other renewable sources, then why should you rely on a monopolistic private utility? City leaders should seize opportunities for local self sufficiency.

Depending on the scale of the disaster, a city may also need to rebuild its local economy. This too should be attempted at the smallest possible scale. When beneficial transactions between residents are possible, they should be allowed by right to help the economy recover. A sustainable city fosters commerce both at the neighborhood scale and the metropolitan scale. City leaders should relax restrictions on temporary markets and proactively locate commercial nodes & corridors.

Finally, the transportation system should be re-configured reflect these changes. The city may need to re-organize its public transit systems and prioritize investments in footpaths and bicycling infrastructure.

Tell a coherent & compelling story

Too often urban planners neglect the cultural power of storytelling as an organizing feature of our cities. I believe people use stories to process pain and trauma. Following a disaster, there are at least two types of stories that should be expressed clearly in the public realm:

  1. Respecting what remains. While it may seem like everything has changed following a catastrophe, the memory of what came before will persist. Public memorials can help current and future generations comprehend what was lost and what remains.
  2. Inspiring a positive vision for the future. People returning to an area devastated by a natural disaster will need motivation. Optimistic and positive visions of the future can help them avoid despair and feel hope for the future.

These stories will help explain why things are different and how the community has changed to become more sustainable. Artists of all disciplines can assist in the recovery of a place this way.

We can build better big box parking lots

A reader in Grand Rapids, Michigan shared the following:

After almost being struck to death several times at our local Meijer parking lot I noticed WHY the Meijer parking lot is like a death trap as opposed to the Celebration Cinema.

His aggravation led him to make these two diagrams:

“Death Lot” – excessive drive-thru lanes, non-existent crosswalks and haphazard placement of a bus stop make this lot dangerous for everybody.

 

“Good Lot” – by dividing the surface with a tree lined foot path this adjacent parking lot feels safer.

[Aside: one of my first jobs was to retrieve carts from a parking lot very similar to the one in the top diagram. In the 19 years since I held that position, the parking lot has not changed very much.]

This inspired me to reconsider the future of the suburban parking lot. In my view, there are some good reasons for questioning our long term needs for these super-sized parking lots. In my view, parking lots of this magnitude deserve to be called into question for the following reasons:

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The good, the bad & the ugly

Over the last few weeks I’ve accumulated several pictures highlighting the best and worst of urban design while walking or biking around my neighborhood in Savannah.

The Good

The Bad

The Ugly