Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

New Urbanism Proponents Must Look to the Future

Dateline: 9:46 am September 7, 2010 Filed under:

So there I was, Joe Urban, sipping my morning joe, listening to NPR and reading Metropolis magazine online. In Metropolis was a short article about suburban general stores. The idea is neat – every suburban subdivision gets a bodega – a general store, where residents can, as the article explains, “pick up sundry items and drop off recycling, drop off DVDs and buy stamps – all within a five minute walk.” They claim that doing so, a 500-unit subdivision would save 45,000 gallons of gas per year.

At the very moment I was reading this, NPR was announcing that Blockbuster Video was likely going to file for bankruptcy in September and close several hundred stores.

I had to take a moment to reconcile what I was reading with what I was hearing, and make sure what I was drinking was indeed black coffee not spiked with anything. My eyes were reading about an innovative urban planning solution that calls for stocking suburban general stores with DVDs and my ears were picking up information about the decline of the DVD in the economy. Just how innovative is that?

Does it strike anyone as tone deaf that we urban-planner types should be promoting our innovative ideas with the notion that we can take a stroll to the corner store to rent DVDs and buy stamps, two things that have been decidedly in decline as of late? If there is a fault in the message of those of us promoting new urbanism and progressive urban planning, it is that it too often we look backwards rather than forward, particularly in an era when we can pay bills and stream movies online. We try to sell some sort of antiquated small town a way of life, a simpler time, if you will, when we know times weren’t really that simple back then. Honstely, would we really want to go back if we could?

(Mind you, the idea of Suburban General Stores is worthy of consideration, given people’s interest in local shopping and eco-friendly practices. I do not believe that creating a small store in a subdivision is necessarily the best way to achive this. First, it is politically unlikely on a large scale – just how many cities have the gumption to change their zoning to allow it? Second, a five minute walk in most subdivisions doesn’t create a draw area of enough households to create demand for even a small store. Third, without sidewalks, most customers would drive anyway, and adding sidewalks is an economic and political minefield.)

I’m all for solutions, and creating high-quality, walkable, sutainable, mixed-use development served by transit is worthy for a number of reasons. And there are many opportunities to retrofit suburbia. But new urbanists must sell people on the merits of solving the urban problems of today and capture the imagination of how we can live tomorrow. Even then, the general store may remain an elusive piece of the puzzle.

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