Reducing our physical footprint helps reduce our carbon footprint simply because there is less space to condition. But tiny buildings, and especially those that house tiny businesses like Mike & Patty’s, contribute in other ways as well. The math is fairly simple: mega-stores require large numbers of customers to survive, whereas tiny stores require a much smaller number. Why does this matter? Because every additional customer a business needs to survive must come from further away. If a business is small enough, its customers can get to it on foot, whereas if a business is large enough, everyone must drive.
There is a tipping point when a store gets much bigger than a large Main Street shop where the parking lot pushes it over the edge into complete auto-dependency. A big parking lot acts like a moat, separating the store from even the nearby customers that might walk... ever heard of anyone who lives across the street from a Super WalMart actually walking to the Super WalMart? I didn’t think so. And the hundreds or even thousands of cars in the sea of parking require big roads to get there, ensuring even more that nobody will walk. Where would a Super WalMart be appropriate? Curiously, very large department stores have always existed in very dense urban places. Some of Manhattan’s department stores are 6 or 7 stories tall. The reason large stores are sustainable here is because they have so many potential customers within walking distance or transit distance. Does anybody ever drive their car to Macy’s?
Seth Harry is a leading New Urbanist architect and retail expert; he has been exploring related ideas for years. He has presented his work on issues of retail scale numerous times, including at the New Urban Council VI in San Diego.
Places where you have to drive violate the first rule of Accessible Places: that you must be able to gain access to the place by a variety of means of transportation, especially including the self-propelled ones: walking and biking. If it’s not a walkable place, it’s not a sustainable place. But a place with lots of little shops widely distributed throughout neighborhoods is not only an Accessible Place, but also a Serviceable Place.
We need more places like Mike & Patty’s, which you can also read about here and here and here, to remind us just how small a business can be and thrive. I stumbled across Mike & Patty’s while shooting Boston’s Bay Village neighborhood for the Catalog of the Most-Loved Places. It’s exceptionally tiny... only nine seats, and two employees, but for most of the time I was shooting around it, there was a line out the door; I had to come back to get the image above while nobody was standing outside. I couldn’t even get inside to get these interior shots until after they closed at the end of lunch because it was always packed. When I finally got in, I discovered that Mike Fitzhenry (the guy in the red cap) happens to be a huge advocate for sustainably- and locally-grown food, which of course is the essence of a Nourishable Place.
The building is obviously Lovable; it’s also Durable, as it’s nearly 200 years old already. Mike claims it’s 280 square feet, although that seems to be stretching it a bit, but the space is so simple that you can imagine it being Flexible enough to be just about any kind of business, or with interior shutters or shades, I can even imagine a studio apartment there during the inevitable periods of decline that every neighborhood faces if it lasts long enough. And of course, even with the large glass windows, it’s hard to imagine that this tiny eatery costs much to condition. In other words, its tiny footprint likely makes it quite Frugal. So we have nearly the entire essence of the Original Green bound up in one tiny restaurant.
It is interesting that the benefits of tiny businesses are two-sided. The neighborhood benefits by having an enticing place to walk to, of course, and by being able to have one more of the basic services of life met within the neighborhood.
But that is not the whole story. The business benefits greatly on several counts. If you build clientele within the neighborhood, they are often far more loyal than people coming from a distance away. This is due in part to convenience, of course, but can also be due to a sense of neighborhood pride.
There are physical benefits as well... such as the fact that if you’re small enough, you don’t need to provide any parking because (if the neighborhood streets are walkable) everyone will walk. That’s a big savings for a small business. Also, your signage budget can be very small because customers approaching on foot don’t need a huge sign. Mike and Patty’s sign, as a matter of fact, is nothing more than a menu taped to the inside of the window... probably a dollar or two at most. Contrast this with the $200,000 a Waffle House might have to spend in order to attract customers from the interstate up to a mile away.
Notice also that Mike & Patty’s landscaping consists of a few potted plants in a window box either side of the door. The street tree is owned and maintained by the city, since it occurs on the sidewalk. Contrast this with landscaping tabs that easily get into the tens of thousands of dollars for larger businesses in a suburban setting. I could go on, but you get the point. Most of these savings contribute to energy sustainability, and they all undoubtedly contribute to economic sustainability of the business.
One final point... For years, we’ve been told that businesses are getting larger and larger because of the economies of scale. But how do the economies of scale really stack up when we consider the economies of smallness, as noted above? There is a fine-grained nature of economies of scale that rarely gets discussed: the real economies of scale occur at the scale of the crew, not the scale of the building. One of the first questions that should be asked is “what is single-crew capacity of this business?” A single crew can do a certain amount of work in a day, whether they’re working in a big box or a small one. Take hotels, for example. A single housekeeper is the smallest housekeeping crew, and she or he can do roughly 8 rooms per day. So if you build hotels and inns in increments of 8 rooms, you’ll be almost equally efficient from a housekeeping standpoint whether it’s 8 rooms or 80. Mike & Patty’s single crew is two people: Mike and Patty. And they’re clearly having a great time of it.
~ Steve Mouzon