Red Friday

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photo by Charles Marohn, used with permission

   Is this the beginning of the Fall of Sprawl? I was really struck by all the pictures on Twitter last night of half-empty shopping center parking lots yesterday, on Black Friday, which is the day American retailers finally get in the black (make a profit) for the first time of the year. But not yesterday. The final returns aren’t in yet, but when they are, there’s little doubt that most retailers will still be firmly in the red, many with little hope of turning a profit at all this year, making this the first Red Friday in America. The crash might come more quickly than anyone ever thought. Here are a few thoughts as to why:

Millennials Shopping


photo by Jon-Mark Patterson, used with permission

   Millennials are notorious for not wanting to work in office parks. Many of them choose a cool city first, then a cool place in that city, then a job in that cool place. If they can't stand working in sprawl office buildings, then why would they want to shop in sprawl shopping centers? It's no secret that big retailers have been failing for several years, and what city isn’t littered with dead or dying malls? If yesterday really turns out to be the first Red Friday of our lifetimes, that could turn the stream of big retailer bankruptcies into a flood next year, because of the prospect of Red Fridays year after year.

Shopping & Sleeping


photo by Monte Anderson, used with permission

   If you suddenly can’t shop in sprawl because there isn’t much left in a year or two, do you really want to sleep in that subdivision masquerading as a "bedroom community?” Remember the retail left in the inner cities in the 1970s once most shopping moved out to the sprawling new suburbs? It was mostly a collection of liquor stores, tattoo parlors, and cheap groceries with little more than unhealthy foods and cigarettes. It’s entirely possible that a similar thing could happen soon in much of sprawl if the shopping implodes. Who would want to live there then? Was today the beginning of the end of sprawl?

Traditional American Downtowns

   On the bright side, retail in the USA has been an anomaly since World War II. European nations typically have 1 to 3 square feet of retail per person. It's now 41.6 square feet in the USA, although it was only a much smaller anomaly of 4 square feet per person here as late as 1960. And almost anyone who has ever been to Europe would agree that most of their urbanism is far more charming and vibrant than almost all of our sprawl. So getting rid of the seas of parking around the malls and replacing them with vibrant town centers that people might actually travel to for vacation (like they do to Europe) would be good, right? And to be clear, nobody in the history of the world ever decided to come to town on vacation because of the Walmart.


photo by Charles Marohn, used with permission

   And lest this sound too Europe-centric, consider this: before sprawl began in earnest after World War II,  no American town center contained more than about 17% retail, according to Kennedy Smith, who was the director of the National Main Street Center for years. The rest of it consisted of offices, workshops, restaurants, apartments, and other uses. So if sprawl and its retail collapses next year, it's really just taking us back to the classic American towns we loved so much. And the most of America which destroyed their most-loved places by trying to transform it into sprawl from 1945 through 1980 now cherishes their memories so much that the do the next-best thing by spending hundreds of millions of dollars each year to visit Main Street USA in Disney’s theme parks.

A Brighter Suburban Day

   It’s entirely possible that many sprawling places will become ghost towns when they can no longer afford to keep up their infrastructure, as Charles Marohn and Joe Minicozzi have been saying for years. Fortunately, New Urbanists led by Galina Tachieva, Ellen Dunham-Jones, and June Williamson have responded to the alarm bells rung by Charles and Joe by crafting a suite of solutions now known as Sprawl Retrofit that can help transform forward-looking spawling suburbs with courage and political will into vibrant and sustainable places with high Walk Appeal and a diverse collection of local businesses to serve them. Because make no mistake: for at least two years, people have been turning to small local businesses instead of national chain stores. The Congress for the New Urbanism, which usually encourages its members to lead new initiatives, felt that this issue was so important that they took the unusual step of taking the Build a Better Burb initiative under their wing in recognition of the fact that retrofitting sprawl is now the biggest place-making challenge in American history. We simply cannot afford to fail.

   ~Steve Mouzon

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© Stephen A. Mouzon 2020