The Case for Investing Downtown
January 15, 2014

There is a shop around here. Everytime I drive past it, I feel a sense of sadness. Can you tell me why?

It is an innocent vacuum cleaner store - probably locally owned. I bet the owner of the store lives around here, sends their kids to a local school, and provides for their family. But, I have never gone into that store, and I probably never will. I wonder how many people in this town bought their vacuum cleaner from this store? Probably very few.

There is really nothing wrong with the store. The owner is probably very nice and would make me feel welcome. But it is kind of inconvenient to get to - even though I drive past it most days. The store is along a stroad;

The city is probably very proud of this stroad - it looks shiny and newly widened. But, by being located along a road like this makes it a lot of effort to visit the store. I have to pull over, park the car, and lock it. But what if the shop is too expensive or does not have what I want? Then I have to do a left turn back on to the road, while cars are flying past at 45 mph - all for nothing. I may as well just look at the vacuum cleaners next time I am at Target or Kroger.

In my mind, this store represents a sad side to the suburban story.

I want to support small businesses, but it is incredibly inconvenient to do so. The only small businesses I frequent around here are restuarants for lunch, and the occasional contractor for when I want something done to my house. If I were to do all of my weekly shopping at small businesses - drive 2 miles to a family owned grocery store, 3 miles back to a family owned butcher, another 3 miles to a family owned pharmacy - it would feel like I was spending all day navigating traffic, driving across town just for a few items at a time.

I would have a hard time convincing myself, or my wife, that we would want to spend our Sunday doing this. Why would we not just head to Kroger, where we only have to park once, and we can get everything conveniently at one location?

It is a sad reality that small businesses often struggle in the United States;

When I started blogging, my second article was about the effects of the automobile. I wrote;

Car-dependent cities don't favour small businesses. When driving, it takes a lot of time and effort to slow down, find an opportunity to make the turn, find a free parking spot, and park your car. Then when you want to leave, you have to get back in your car, and wait for an opening until you can merge back into traffic. In a car-dependent city where each small business provides it's own parking, it becomes a huge waste of time and is massively inconvenient to drive between and park at each store. From a consumer's perspective, they want to make the least number of stops possible during a shopping trip. Department stores and other big box retailers have a significant advantage as the consumer only has to park once and have most of their needs under a single roof, then they only have to pack their car once and return home. Local green grocers, bakeries, butcher shops, convenience stores, and other specialty retailers simply can't compete with that. Small businesses favour foot traffic - and thus, they favour the traditional city. In a traditional city you're likely to walk past countless small businesses going about your daily business. It's more convenient to simply spend 5 minutes of your time walking in to one of those on your way home than to go out of your way to a large supermarket. This isn't to say that large stores don't work in traditional cities - they do, but local businesses can be more competive purely because it's more convenient to visit a small business in a traditional city.

A Bit of Background

I grew up in the Australian suburbs - by American standards the area I lived in would be considered 'pre-war suburbia';

Just like the United States, Australia also has its fair share of post-WW2 suburbia and cul-de-sacs. A strip mall in Australia does not look that different to an American one;

But, my house was conveniently located inbetween a bus stop and a train station, that both dropped me off in the city centre, where everything I could ever possibly need to do was within walking distance;

I never bothered to get my drivers license in Australia. Most of my friends at university did not either - you would be considered crazy if you paid $1,800 a year for a parking permit!

I would consider that a 'strong' urban core - the type I talked about in my blog post What About The Elderly? In that post, I defined a strong urban core as being one where an elderly person would be able to take a bus into town, and have all of their needs satisfied on foot. Most Australian towns and cities are pretty centralized in terms of the services, job opportunities, and retail that you can find in the city centres.

There are plenty of American cities with strong centralized downtown cores. Portland, Oregon is one of them - infact, I would probably consider Portland the poster child for the ideal hypertrophic city. The city's core is compact and walkable;

I never needed a reason to leave downtown during my stay except when I headed off to the coast or to explore Columbia Gorge.

Unfortunately, not every city is like this. Little Rock, Arkansas is one of those. Unless you work in a high-rise office, or want to visit a handful of museums, there is really nothing else to do downtown - at least not enough to keep you occupied for an entire day. It is really sad to see this, because I have talked to people that remember Little Rock in the 1950s, that say it use to be like that;

It looks like a great city I could spend a day exploring.

Here is the same location today;

There is nobody around - all I see are the blank walls of offices buildings. Virtually anything worth visiting in Little Rock today is along a strip mall in the northern and western suburbs. Little Rock is essentially a city that has hollowed itself out.

The Case for Investing Downtown

In an urban environment, not only are we concentrating our infrastructure and saving money - requiring very little to service many - but on a per-acre basis - the taxes and jobs generated from it are phenomenally high;

It is within a city's best interest to attract investment downtown.

I have come to the opinion that most Americans cherish a good urban environment. Whenever I see an postcard promoting downtown Little Rock, most often it will be an image of the River Market district;

The area of Little Rock that is compact, walkable, with a handful of shops is only about 1,400 feet long;

Even though most of downtown Little Rock consists of parking lots and the blank walls of office buildings, the small part of good urbanism that exists in Little Rock is what leaves the impression - even if that good urbanism is very small.

At the start of the Strong Towns video Huntington Calling , you will hear a former mayor asking;

Why on earth would we go back in time 70 years to model our current cities on?

Because we were creating lovable, productive places.

When I look up Huntington, West Virginia, I see images of their downtown;

The places I see are the places she was talking about that were built 70 years ago. Now, according to her, "times have changed" and they want to build this instead;

Nobody is going to cherish that - it looks like it could be anywhere in the country. I doubt those buildings are older than 10, maybe 20 years and the area already looks a lot more blighted and ugly than the 70+ year old buildings downtown;

The role of a city planner should be to create value in their city. This value can be monetary (downtown properties generate a greater tax revenue per acre), economic (downtown businesses generate more jobs per acre), or qualitative (creating lively, urban environments that people cherish and remember.) They were doing that 70 years ago.

Back to the Vacuum Cleaner Store

If I owned a small business, would I see more customers by being located along a road;

Or being located in an urban area where people are streaming past my door?

There is a small shop in Hot Springs, Arkansas called The Bath Factory. All they sell are handmade bath soaps and bath salts;

The Bath Factory does very good business - it is always filled with customers. I usually pay the store a visit everytime I am in Hot Springs. Why? Because it is conveniently located downtown. Everytime I am in Hot Springs, I always make at least one trip downtown. When I am walking downtown, I walk past dozens of small businesses;

It takes me all but a few minutes to head inside one of these stores, make a purchase, then continue walking down the street.

Would I visit the The Bath Factory if it was located along a highway in Hot Springs, instead of downtown?

I doubt it. Not just for bath salts.

An essential part of becoming a Strong Town is to have a strong local economy - one that keeps as much money local as possible - and for this to happen, we need to create an environment that small businesses can thrive in - and an environment where people are willing to support them.

We need family owned businesses like the vacuum cleaner shop and The Bath Factory. They support local families, keep money in the economy, and create strong communities - and most importantly they stop our towns from being overtaken by large chains and franchises that turn us into Copy and Paste Towns by simply pasting their template into our town to milk out profit - without contributing to the town's livability or uniqueness.

It is very hard to create an environment like this in suburbia compared to downtown. If you look at any small town or large city with a strong, vibrant downtown core, you will find small businesses everywhere - from specialty shops;

To street vendors;

And a culture that values buying local.


If we jump back to the question;

Why on earth would we go back in time 70 years to model our current cities on?

Because it worked.

  1. Our cities were financially productive.
  2. Small businesses florished and remained competitive.
  3. We had vibrant, lively urban streets filled with people and activity.

In response to the Atlantic Cities article - Is the 'Traditional Downtown' Dead? My answer is no - it just needs to be revived.