Two recent stories in the national media illustrated why I think it’s important to separate the push for density, which solves or mitigates a whole series of objective social problems, from the aesthetic distaste for bix box stores and chain restaurants.
First, the Atlantic takes the angle that in-city big-box stores reduce driving:
The researchers then took this data on the frequency, length and type of trips people were making and calculated monthly vehicle-miles-traveled estimates before and after the Target. Before, residents were driving about 97 miles a month for their cleaning supplies, patio items and such. After, that number dropped to 79.6 miles. The frequency of shopping trips to downtown Davis didn’t change much, suggesting the new Target was siphoning more business from far-flung big boxes than local downtown stores.
This result is consistent with my anecdotal experience — sometimes, the easiest thing to do is go to Target, even if it’s farther away — but I’d also suggest that big box stores, while not meeting the narrow-storefront nirvana of urbanists, need not be the pedestrian-hostile sea of parking we experience every day.
Consider the Northgate North complex that is, well, north of Northgate Mall, which consists of three big box stores (and several others) stacked on top of each other in one city block. I would never suggest this is ideal urbanism. The free parking garage isn’t great, the transit access is barely adequate, and it’s hardly a pedestrian paradise. Nevertheless, it’s a compact form for three big-box stores, and vastly superior to what you’d find from those exact same chains near Southcenter.
More after the jump.
Similarly, Matt Yglesias makes the case for much-maligned chain restaurants as a potential force for good in the world:
I don’t know why it is that no beloved Bay Area taquerias have become Patient Zero for a major national chain with a publicly traded stock, an international expansion under way, and an ambitious proposal to launch a second restaurant concept but the fact of the matter is that they haven’t… Loving unique local restaurants is great, but in life it’s ideas that scale up that change the world.
Part of the urban sneer at suburbs is that they’re packed with chain restaurants. I certainly understand the aesthetic appeal of local establishments, but it’s just that — an aesthetic preference, and sometimes you just want a Grand Slam.
Densification is about taking all the forms that people know and use, and adapting them to be more sustainable. That’s hard enough without also trying to make it render large, efficient corporate operations obsolete.