Wednesday, June 30, 2004
"Consider, on the other hand, the community wrought by a currently popular retail format, the superstore building, also known as a “big box.” (Loosely defined, a big box is a standalone retail building having a floor area of greater than 50,000 square feet.) While the “big box” offers certain economic benefits and practical advantages (low prices, efficient distribution) it taxes our systems in other ways. There are the ecological issues: The big box is predicated on large parking lots that are inefficiently used most of the year . . . except Christmas. The design of these sites hardly ever takes into account preexisting natural features such as streams, fields, ridges, the nuances that cause each place to be distinct. Large expanses of asphalt create urban heat islands and significant pollution—with huge volumes of storm water runoff dumping harmful elements into our streams. Built to last 7-30 years maximum, these structures are essentially disposable. A big box’s location practically mandates the use of an automobile. But all this might be considered an aesthete’s fussiness, mere cultural preferences.
More to the point, maybe, pedestrian access is nearly impossible and prohibitively expensive. And so pedestrian traffic is almost non-existent. What kind of communion is this? (A friend recently described the virtues of being able to rotate from superstore to superstore, from strip mall to strip mall, all within 10-15 miles of home: “I can dress however I want, and I never have to worry about running into someone I know!”). To gain that anonymity and that lower price tag, consumers drive right past their neighbor, the local merchant who is rapidly disappearing from the American scene. Meanwhile, “format” stores such as WalMart and Costco are beating market expectations quarterly because Americans bend over backwards for the best price, and simply don’t value the things that well-thought-out urbanism can provide.
These days, sidewalks are the exception, the town square is a quaint and nostalgic idea, and public benches and places to sit are discouraged. The neighborhood park often is an enormous tract of land on the outskirts of town; some might drive there, but no one really owns it. Where, in today’s communities, are the places that parades are held and speeches given? Where is the special nook for young lovers to become engaged to be married? Where can neighbors be neighbors to one another, and where can rich and poor walk down the sidewalks as fellow citizens?
* * *
In terms of economic justice, there are in many communities, regulations and zoning laws that keep out the poor and working class. Some affluent counties currently prohibit developers from building a house smaller than 1200 square feet, or on a parcel of less than an acre. This drives housing costs so high that teachers, police, and postal workers—especially in large metro areas—cannot afford to live in the communities they serve. Minimum-wage workers are encouraged to commute long distances by public transportation just to serve in restaurants and offices. The Bible shouts its message of respect for the poor: “Do not scorn the poor man.”[iii] It would seem clear, then that design that scorns the poor and facilitates the rich is unbiblical. Does this pattern grow out of a sinful dislike and distrust of people with lesser standing?
* * *
I've said it before, I know: I really like urbanism, sidewalks, porches, narrow streets . . . but I really like Target and Best Buy, too.