Is it possible that today’s glut of retail establishments (many of which are now failing) is a result of our failure to build real civic spaces like plazas, squares, greens, and parks, and to build highly walkable streets, avenues, boulevards, and promenades, where people can meet others they know by chance, and can meet others they don’t already know? How could that be? Humans are social; we have a deep-seated need to be around other people for part of the day. Once, you could happen across others walking down the street, or sitting in the square, or having a coffee at the sidewalk cafe, where the purchase of a single espresso bought you a license to your table for an entire afternoon.
Those things are impossible in virtually every corner of Sprawlopolis today. Because while walkable streets have forever been favorite places where people met, you certainly won't be around anyone else out on the arterial, because pedestrians take their lives in their own hands out there. And the squares and plazas where people once congregated have been replaced with over-engineered intersections and interchanges where the only people you'll see out of their cars are the homeless people looking for charity.
So the malls have enticed us to come by being poor forgeries of Main Streets where the townspeople once rubbed shoulders... but what choices are there today? And the strip centers are even worse... one-sided malls with no air conditioning, but where else are you going to go? We’ve isolated ourselves in office parks surrounded by huge wastelands of parking, and in stockade-fenced back yards... remember what a stockade is? It’s a makeshift prison. Nothing has changed. So the only shred of community we have left, where we can perchance see people we know and meet those we don’t yet know in a completely unplanned fashion is the shopping center.
So what happened when we went to the shopping centers in search of community? We found a bit of it, to be sure, but because we were walking right into the maw of the exquisitely good modern retail machine, we also bought stuff... a LOT of stuff... far more than we needed. It’s a lot like the super-sizing phenomenon, where fast food establishments have found ways of feeding us far more than we needed... and our health and fitness has suffered immensely.
How much stuff have we been sold than what we need? Well, at the end of WWII, the average American house was close to 1,100 square feet, and a family slightly larger than four people lived there. Today, the American house has bloated to more than double that size, while the American household is less than half the size that it was. Yet, with half the people in twice the space, we still have so much excess stuff that won’t fit in the house that we have turned mini-storage into a $20 billion/year industry... larger than the movie industry!!
What should we do, now that retail is crashing down all around us? As the malls go dark, where will the people go? If we do nothing, we are facing greater isolation and separation, and nothing good comes from that... only the continued unraveling of society, and all its accompanying ills.
The New Urbanism has been working for thirty years now to re-learn old solutions and find new ones that create great streets and civic spaces. But New Urbanism to date has been confined to a tiny part of the American landscape, which we have otherwise filled with endless waves of sprawl. Although many new sprawl subdivisions are boarded up and rotting in the more remote corners of Sprawlopolis, we can’t abandon it all, because there are simply too many people to fit into the places that currently have great streets and civic places. So we must quickly learn how to fix the messes we’ve made, because you shouldn’t be required to buy something in order to meet a future friend. Bring back the places we can freely assemble!
~ Steve Mouzon
Friday, March 20, 2009 - 04:45 PM
Saturday, March 21, 2009 - 05:28 AM
I'm all for urbanism and new urbanism. The retail glut is hitting us, too. Our authentic downtowns are experiencing vacancies, too.
This country has ten times the retail square footage as our friends in England have. That we built all of that sprawl without needing it is the real problem. As a result of the economic downturn, all of it will suffer. Hopefully, the walkable neighborhoods will come back first.
Saturday, March 21, 2009 - 09:16 AM
It amuses me that everyone is seeing these strip mall stores to close their doors first, yet we keep on building them. In every town, their are chains of stores. I think everyone should notice that the first to close are in the auto-centric areas while the chain stores and restaurants that remain open are in walkable communities or in the downtown areas.
I hope this recession teaches the development community a lesson on what type of development is truly sustainable. Good stuff Steve!
Tuesday, May 26, 2009 - 07:05 PM
Thanks for the comments, everyone! I believe that this recession could be the best thing that ever happened in the debate about sprawl, because it shows just how unsustainable it really is.
Monday, January 4, 2010 - 02:46 AM
In addition to the open public spaces like plazas and squares, we have also often lost the neighborhood meetinghouses every town used to have - the lodges, the clubs, the town hall, the (widely attended) churches - and the free, participatory activities and assistance that went with them.
Even paid entertainment used to be more participatory, like skating rinks, pubs, theaters, or amusement parks. Now more social interactions between strangers are based on a brief transaction, and the salesperson moves on.
I have several friends who are shopaholics (I don't use that word lightly - they are deep in debt, talk about losing their homes, but cannot leave a place without buying something.) They talk confessionally to sales staff, who then establish an intimate relationship over whatever has just arrived, or congratulate my friends on their taste in their purchase, welcoming them to the club.
The decline of malls proved that they were a poor replacement for public streets. Perhaps the decline of retail will correspond to a rise in cooperative "maker spaces" , which could become the lodge of the Internet age.
Tuesday, January 5, 2010 - 03:56 PM
Izzy, I know you're right about the first part, and hope you're right about the second part! New Urbanists regularly insist on civic spaces being designed into neighborhoods, even if we don't know exactly what sort of civic building will eventually be there. If you don't reserve civic land at the beginning, it'll usually never happen.