October 2, 2014

When I first heard that Conway, Arkansas was getting a Walmart Neighbourhood Market, I was curious. You see, when I hear 'neighbourhood', I think of neighbours, I think of going for a walk, I think of kids playing in the street, I think of our mailman making deliveries;

When I heard that we were getting a Walmart Neighbourhood Market - a smaller version of a Walmart store that only sells groceries - I was actually excited. I thought, finally - we may be getting a grocery store downtown! Somewhere I could walk to. Somewhere neighbours could say 'Hello' as we passed each other on the way home. I expecting something like this;

Maybe in a smaller version, as Conway is a smaller city.

Target, in Australia, builds smaller versions of their store in smaller towns where a full Target department store would not be feasible. They brand these smaller stores Target Country;

That Target Country store is in Bowral, NSW, a town with a population of 12,154. Bowral is a typical, small suburban town;

Here is a typical residential street;

Here is another one;

It is a typical suburban town. Most people live in single family homes, and most people probably drive everywhere. Bowral was able to get Target - a large international chain - to build a smaller version of their store on their main street;

Let's compare Bowral to Conway. Here is a typical residential street in Conway;

Here is a street in downtown Conway;

You can see that both towns are very similar, except that Conway happens to have five times more people than Bowral, and Conway also have several colleges, including a large university. The buildings and houses look slightly different, but physically the two towns are very similar. In both towns, nearly everyone drives everywhere.

When I heard that Walmart was building a Walmart Neighbourhood Market, a smaller version of their store that sells groceries to people that do not want to travel to out of their way to a full sized Walmart, and having seen what Target does with Target Country in towns far smaller than Conway, you would think that I would be justified in thinking that Walmart was going buy a corner in the middle of a neighbourhood for their Walmart 'Neighbourhood' Market;

Not as quaint as that, but I think you get the picture of what I mean - that it was going to be something 'neighbourly'.

This is what we ended up with;

I captioned the building so you can see it all the way in the back.

Here is the building from the air;

How is the Walmart 'Neighbourhood' Market 'neighbourly' when your front door is set back 750 feet from the street - distancing themselves as far away as possible from any 'neighbours'! They also purchased a massive chunk of land to build a single store on! That is just plain out wasteful.

In the spirit of my previous blog post, I decided to map out the Places and Non-Places to see how much land they are actually wasting;

There is a walking trail, something people go out of their way to use, so I marked it as a Place. That huge missing chunk at the front was sold off and built into a Chik-fil-A. The satellite image does not show that, so to be fair I left it out. I calculated a Place:Non-Place ratio of 29,131:280,159 or about 0.10:1 (9.4% Place).

It is not that we do not know how to build any differently. A little while ago I showed you a street in downtown Conway, here is what downtown looks like from the air;

Let's compare this to the Walmart Neighbourhood Market by mapping out the Places and Non-Places;

I calculated a Place:Non-Place ratio of 209,526:199,385 or about 1.05:1 (51.2% Place).

There are more destinations in less land, in an environment that is actually attractive and pleasant and makes you want to walk from store to store, and generally makes for a more enjoyable day out than when you spend it all in your car. It does not take a genious to figure this out. Infact, we build most of this a century ago, copying what we knew from other places that we liked, and replicated it here, and it worked out pretty well.

Much of the area marked as Non-Place was done so because it was dedicated to off-street parking in the inner blocks. If we fully built out the blocks with the street grid that currently exists, downtown would be closer to 75% place. That is about 23% of the densest part of Conway just sitting underutilized. The rest of downtown is so underutilized - mostly dedicated to off-street parking, just sitting there full of potential, waiting to be infilled;

Was I unjustified in expecting that our Walmart Neighbourhood Market was not going to be a piece of crap? That the 'neighbourhood' in 'Neighborhood' Market actually meant something?

Why is our new stuff so crummy in comparison to what our ancestors built a century ago? (The only modern thing in Conway that isn't crummy is the Hendrix Village - and that was built in an area that has a special zoning exclusion!)

Think about all of the progress we have made in the past century - in mechanics and materials that we can build things faster and cheaper than ever, in psychology and urbanism and understanding what makes people happy and places pleasant, in transportation and information technology that we can see and experience examples of what works all over the world. We hire planners, directors, and engineers - roles that did not exist in this city a century ago.

But what good was all of it?

Progress is about making our lives better. Something is incredibly wrong if our ancestors were able to build better places than what we build today. There is no excuse for it.

Hopefully, the next time we get something with 'Neighbourhood' in its name, it is actually part of a neighbourhood.