The Destination Crawl

All shopping centers need those stores that customers consider a destination. Those stores that people will go out of their way to shop at. Destination stores must be located within the walkshed of each other in order to create a series of destinations that customers can visit without getting back in their cars.

One way to think of a series of destinations is like a bar crawl. You start at one bar, then walk down the street to another one, then further down the street to a third. You might not walk directly from the first bar to the third bar because they are too far away from one another, but because the second bar is in the middle all three become walkable. Similarly, a shopper might walk from Target to Kohls and then on to the grocery store, even if Target and the grocery store are too far from one another to walk between directly. This is the Destination Crawl.

Unfortunately, most suburban regional shopping centers, the type that are encouraged by cities due to municipal financial incentives, are not designed to place their destination stores within each other’s walkshed. It becomes impossible to do the Destination Crawl.

The Car Oriented Shopping Center

The DistrictA wonderfully terrible example of the unwalkability of suburban regional shopping centers is The District in Tustin, California. The District is located on the former Marine Corps Air Station, Tustin, best known as the home of the world’s largest wooden blimp hangars. The District was a brown-field development that started as a completely blank canvas that was pan flat. With this blank canvas, the developer was able to create a hellish landscape for pedestrians and a nightmare for motorists, a rare combination.

Shoppers at The District who want to go grocery shopping at Whole Foods and then go to Target either have the option of walking 1,000 feet through a parking lot and jaywalking across a four-lane road, or getting in their car and driving between the two stores. Shopping centers, even ones where customers primarily arrive by car, don’t have to be designed this way.

The unwalkability of The District is entirely due to the fact that its buildings are arranged in a ring around the parking, instead of clustering the buildings in the center and placing the parking to one side. The District gets it even worse, because it’s designed so the buildings front on the parking lot and turn their back on the surrounding streets, so people from neighboring communities can’t even conveniently walk into the center.

A Destination Crawl Redesign

Instead of placing buildings within a sea of parking, and creating further barriers to walkability in the form of wide roads without safe places to cross on foot, the developer could have created an overlapping series of destinations that would have enabled a Destination Crawl. This would require moving the buildings closer together and making the walk between destinations more pedestrian friendly.

The most helpful change to the design of The District would be to make the path between destinations more walkable. Right now, to get around on foot requires cutting across parking lots at a diagonal. Doing so is very inefficient and quite unsafe. Direct pedestrian paths need to be provided between destinations. In order to create these direct pedestrian paths, buildings must be square with one another. The street network within The District is unnecessarily curved, causing the building and their associated parking to be at odd angles to one another. These odd angles ensure the most direct path from one destination to another is a diagonal path through the parking lots.

IMG_6184In addition, these paths need to be comfortable in scale and feeling for people on foot, not just crowded along the front of buildings or exposed traversing a wide-open parking lot. When visiting The District, it’s clear that the developer knew how to build for pedestrians, the mall at the center of the development is wonderfully walkable. Unfortunately they didn’t extend this understanding to linking the destinations on the outskirts of the center together.

Another helpful change to the design of The District would be to move the buildings closer together so that the distance between destinations, door to door, is no more than 500 feet. This ensures that it’s only a couple of minutes walk at a nice slow pace between destinations. While making the pedestrian paths more walkable can increase a destination’s walkshed, destinations must still be located close to one another in order to achieve overlapping walksheds and enable a Destination Crawl.

These same principals for a Destination Crawl can be applied to a city’s downtown or any other neighborhood center. By placing destinations in close proximity and providing pedestrian friendly connectivity, any city can support a Destination Crawl. Without these two key components, it’s impossible to achieve walkable communities because it will remain more convenient for customers to drive between destinations instead of walk.

Friday Link Roundup – February 6, 2015

New Climate Economy. Here is a data-drive dive into the economic waste caused by suburban sprawl. The monetary shortfall to maintain our infrastructure could be made up entirely by eliminating the waste caused by car-dependant cities. This analysis is conducted on a macro-scale, but it’s probably true for individual cities as well. We could see great cost savings by making our cities more dense and walkable. via Alex Steffen

Small Is Bountiful. This New Yorker article beutiflly discusses the way small business is making a comeback and contributing to the identity and economic stability of cities. via

6 charts that show renewable energy is getting cheaper. Absolutely critical to making our suburbs environmentally sustainable is to ensure electricity consumption comes from renewable sources. Thankfully, it’s becoming more cost-competitive to do so. With such spread out housing, suburbs actually have an easier time of deploying small-scale distributed solar systems than more urbanized areas. via @drgrist

Local Wealth

One point that has been mentioned several times, but not examined, is the need for local businesses to have access to local sources of wealth, for both debt and equity1. In many cases, multi-national banks won’t lend to small businesses, so local financial institutions are the only way for local businesses to access the capital they need to grow. A community that shows broad-based support for its local financial institutions is one that will bootstrap the growth of the community’s wealth by ensuring existing wealth is reinvested locally, instead of globally.

For most communities, the financial system works something like this: people save and invest some part of their income. The savings are deposited in their account with Bank of America, Chase, or Wells Fargo; the investments are made through a mutual fund. The bank takes their deposits and lends that money to large borrowers around the world. The mutual fund manager purchases stocks from companies generally based in Delaware, with their headquarters in a major metropolitan area and operations globally. None of this money that the community saves is loaned or invested to the businesses in their neighborhoods. Continue reading Local Wealth

Homeownership is not an investment

Investments, by their very nature, can generate income without being sold. They are productive assets. Stocks generate dividends, bonds are redeemed over time, commercial real estate generates rent. Owner-occupied homes are not productive assets because they do not generate income unless they are sold. Homes are not investments, they are a cost.

Most home-buyers think of owning a home as an investment. In many cases, this leads them allocate their resources differently than if they thought of their home as a cost. There are many good reasons to own a home, but owning a home as an investment vehicle is not one of them. While it’s true that real estate generally appreciates in value, it does so roughly at the pace of inflation. Some cities and neighborhoods will appreciate faster because those areas become more desirable, but as a whole the real estate market appreciates with inflation over the long term.

If homeowners think of their homes as an investment, the only way they can get a return on that investment is by selling it to someone else for more than they paid for it. If the new buyer is also thinking of the home as an investment, the only way they can see a return on the investment is if they, in turn, sell it to a third person willing to pay even more for the home. Each subsequent buyer is betting that they’ll be able to find somebody to pay a higher price for the home in the future.

This behavior of people buying an unproductive asset for ever higher sums of money has a name, it’s called a bubble. We’ve seen, very vividly in 2008, what happens when homebuyers start thinking of their homes as investment assets and an bubble is created and bursts.

Not only do we end up with real estate bubbles when we think of our homes as investments, we distort our asset allocation. This negatively impacts the economic and environmental sustainability of our cities because it causes us to have a greater desire to be homeowners than we might otherwise. The desire to own a home for investment purposes often forces people to live further out in the suburbs, where homes are more affordable, and commute longer distances. This has a direct impact on the number of miles they drive which increases the wear and tear of our streets and the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. In addition, it encourages people to spend more, because they are “investing”, causing them to be “house poor” and reducing their disposable income and slowing the economy as a whole.

There are many good reasons to own a home, even good financial reasons for owning a home, but home-ownership is not an investment vehicle. As a society, we need to stop thinking of buying a house as an investment. Without this change in attitude towards home ownership, we cannot encourage enough suburban communities to rebuild as sustainable and walkable.