Thursday, April 18, 2013

Designed to Fail the Small Scale

Suburbia has an image to uphold.  The sales pitch offers things like ownership, pride, space, safety, quiet, clean, and friendly neighbors.  With that space, people preserving their own space, and preserving a feeling of openness comes a great dependence on a machine to travel those distances at fast speeds and modern comforts required of a seat you'll spend many years of your life in.  Unfortunately, that machine we've chosen (the car/truck/SUV) is big, inefficient, takes up that open space, pollutes, makes noise, creates a danger to kids walking to school (so notice the suburban sales pitch falls a little short of all the hype) and completely disrupts efficiencies in spatial economics so that retail or other business can work at the human scale.  The car takes up space all the time and requires a driveway, garage, parking lots, road lanes, highway lanes, and maybe even off-road lanes.  It's not impossible, but given the choices and preference shifts that come with this space-hungry environment, pedestrians and those competing for a chance at providing something at a smaller scale have immense challenges.

The latest victim of the suburban (sub)economy: Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Markets who are being abandoned by their English owners, Tesco.  Tesco Express (of the U.K.) and Fresh & Easy (of the U.S.) are both small convenience-oriented grocers that offered ready-to-go lunches and prioritized freshness and healthy selections -- the difference being that Tesco Express's are profitable and Fresh & Easy's aren't... $1.8 billion (₤1 billion) loss reported for the U.S. chain.  All the details in reports about the closing of Tesco's American experiment have focused on the same boring simplified line of "not understanding American culture."  The listed mismanagements claim that Tesco didn't understand American preferences along the lines of flavors, selection, pricing, coupons, etc.  I challenge this narrative as being far too limited (and bogus, mostly).

Here's the rest of the story: 

In one simple graphic I've collected views of Tesco's stores in the U.K. (left column) versus views of the Fresh & Easy stores of California, Nevada, and Arizona (right column).

These images were all captured by using Google Map's street view (one of planner's favorite tools for quickly exploring urban geography - Google Earth helps too with topography).  While I did my best to select from a variety of cities throughout England, the scenes all looked very similar (except for the maybe last one from Rugby).  In the collection of American views, I always tried to select stores located near the urban core of respected locations, if available (from top to bottom: San Francisco, CA; Los Angeles, CA; Sacramento, CA; Sunrise Manor, NV; Phoenix, AZ).

Here are some themes that contrast the U.S. from our neighbors across the pond:

The following are the physical (built environment) conditions that shops like Fresh & Easy and Tesco Express often depend upon just to have the potential to thrive.

1. Mixed Use

In EVERY case from the U.K. the store is part of a building that serves as more than a store.  With offices or housing above the store, every store is sure to have potential customers mere feet (or, since this is the U.K., meters) away.  In EVERY pictured F&E in America, this is NOT the case.  Instead, they have nice elegant architecture, but are part of retail-only shopping centers or stand-alone buildings. Engineering our built environment comes with a responsibility of monitoring how it PERFORMS (not just its aesthetics).

2. Storefront to the public (and doors at the sidewalk)

While there is very little architectural interest in these U.K. storefronts (simple awnings, glass sheet windows) they FUNCTION for the benefit of attracting customers.  There are whole blocks of buildings and destinations that align to this same standard.  The multiple destinations, complemented with street parking, shade trees, narrow roads and wide sidewalks prioritize the needs of the pedestrian.  People have a perfectly good rationale for choosing to ditch a car and take a trip by foot instead.  And even if U.K. customers do drive, the destination will likely be closer since they will pass a series of properties WITHOUT wasted space along the drive.

You might expect maybe you could find this pedestrian-friendliness in the most urban settings Fresh & Easy can be found in, so I offer in the top-right corner a store in San Francisco. While there are electric cables for transit above the road and street parking (unlike the other U.S. scenes), remaining are barriers to the pedestrian to reach the doors of the store.  Notice the knee wall at the outer edge of the parking lot in front of the store.  This knee wall makes sense, because headlights should be shielded from the road when these cars are only parking.  HOWEVER, it's symbolic of how the prioritizing of the car once again disrupts the experience of the pedestrian in a series of ways.

This is something that is SLOWLY changing in the U.S.

Yet, for the most part, buildings being built across the U.S. are required to be "setback" from property lines in American cities.  Typically, the only time municipalities will allow a new building to be built to the property line that shares the public space is where a special zoning code is applied called Form-Based Codes.  I warn you however, in a majority of our (sub)urban space, these codes are thought FAR too progressive by local council members.  Many residents remain low-intensity advocates making a fuss over the need for generous setbacks, two-story building height limits and require ample parking lots.

3. Complete Streets, not Urban Highways

When a street exceeds 5 lanes (2 in either direction with a shared turn lane), it starts to take on a feel that it is engineered to move people through, rather than explore, shop, or be a part of your life.  The destinations go unappreciated as cars zoom by at 45 MPH.  That is not a street that a range of activity can feel comfortable on.  The faster people move through it, the less FUNCTIONAL it becomes for achieving what cities were meant to achieve in the first place (hint: it's not to serve as a highway).

It's also more than about the number of lanes and the speed of traffic.  Those only deter a variety of users.  The next step is to move beyond that and find assets for cyclists and pedestrians, such as convenient, safe crosswalks, street trees, benches, flowers, shade, wide sidewalks, variety of destinations within the same mile walk, protected bike lanes, bike racks, street parking, and proper lighting for the nightlife.

And these are just the top three physical planning attributes that go unappreciated by the mainstream analysis in the discussion of why Fresh & Easy failed.  Until we recognize the ways our urban design depresses the spatial elements of our economy, we'll never be asking the right questions or pursuing the right solutions.  If you agree, you have a responsibility to voice this concern to your local council member.  Tell them briefly that you support (1) mixed use development, (2) form-based codes, and (3) complete streets.

Still not convinced?  Let's explore how the lack of these elements within our productive community cores can affect behavior.

1a. Lack of Mixed Use

This has to do with pooling enough discretionary income and variety of culture to develop a market of consumers, producers, and influencers.  I'm talking about more than the simple expendable commodities that make it to the landfill like your phone in a year.  With urban cores that support a creative class comes music, performance, culinary experiences, groceries, social and political movements, books, drinks, dance floors, sports, etc.  These happen best when we're not all competing to buy more space to spread ourselves out and remain in our walled off back yards.  This requires collaborative space and social mingling in common areas of our lives (and gridlock on your expressway doesn't count -- we're not collaborating then, we're competing to get away from each other).  

What does this have to do with Fresh & Easy (or any small business whose business model requires frequent small transactions with customers)?  When we make a trip in our car (which is something few of us look forward to doing), we have a tendency to want to "stock up" and we also need a place to store such stocked items (in transport and in our home).  This behavioral motive helps people determine the need for an SUV or large trunk and then a super-size pantry.  These concepts counter the business model of most small businesses that cannot afford a store with a mega footprint to offer customers everything in the world at bulk rates.  And, by the way, not EVERYONE has to live in these mixed use buildings, but the mixed use environment needs to be offered in pockets of our city centers at the least to achieve urban economies that FUNCTION.

2a. Lack of Proper Urban Form (Form-Based Codes)

Space is formed with interior rooms and exterior rooms. Space between a building and street trees, building and curb, awning and sidewalk... these are all exterior spaces that create outdoor rooms.  We've done alright with interior rooms in America.  We have far less of a portfolio with exterior spaces that rival the plazas of Italy, for example.

Here's an analogy:  Without a proper meeting space, a company lacks a place for round table discussions and decisions.  Without proper spaces in the public, quasi-public, quasi-private, and private realms, there are many functions of our social and economic lives that lack the appropriate space to function well.

England has inherited an urban form that functions in a way that serves the human scale.  It wasn't built with codes and compliance measures that offered priority to people's personal automobile.  The western states Fresh & Easy ventured into didn't have that pedestrian history.  Urban design has transferred much of its residents' proximity concerns to minimum parking space requirements, large landscape tracts between the parking and the street, and the aggregation of a lot of personal space (big suburban lots) that stands in the way between resident and destination.  With the average stride length of 2.6 feet and only walking 2.8 - 3.5 MPH, distance from door to door means a lot more in effort and time to the pedestrian than the motorist (and even motorists are pedestrians when they get out of their car!).

3a. Lack of Complete Streets

As a species, we've only been getting around by car for a handful of decades.  For thousands of years, cities functioned without large, ultrafast motorized traffic.  Since the invention and the general acquisition of the automobile, cities have spread across more land, cutting more trees, requiring more fossil fuels, more pavement, more stone, more lumber, more water, and it has added up quickly to produce a collective conundrum.  

Our individual preferences (or compromised preferences based on a balance of options and needs) have not prioritized/optimized our spatial outcomes as a society.  This means that in order to manage space, we've offered more lanes of traffic on expressways, which have only encouraged people to move farther from their jobs and acquire more personal space in newer suburbs.  The whole transportation system requires incentives to encourage different behavior from commuters, shoppers, students, wanderers, tourists, ect.  Complete Streets offer an alternative that returns balance to the priorities in our multimodal era of travel.  Without countering the automotive dominance (and dependence), we'll constantly be undermining the Main Street developments that have always served as the home for small, local business(wo)men who could depend on a consistent and well developed market of local residents.  It is home to the hot dog stand, the specialized hardware store, and the small convenience store all with CEOs who lived in your neighborhood and shared in the successes or failures of your community.

Implementing Complete Streets challenges the Big Box stores and the way they function/retain market share.  Big Box retailers have successfully altered the buying habits of the suburban American to buying in bulk with over-sized carts, transferred to over-sized trunks, to over-sized pantries, with overly-processed foods and even leading to oversized meals and caloric intakes (to some extent).  Complete Streets offers the alternative of buying in smaller quantities, as you need, and you carry home what you can... allowing you to buy fresh ingredients.  This will require time used to watch TV, time to perhaps interact with your fellow community members more, and steps that burn those extra calories your Big Box gym has convinced you only they can solve.