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The Challenge for Local Governments

‘As planners, we are charged with seeing out toward a 10- to 20-year horizon, and preparing development plans that will incrementally achieve that vision.’

Rich McLaughlin
Minneapolis, MN
July, 2003
Big Box Retail in the New Economy:
Place-making in the Era of the Electronic Milkman

Certainly not everybody is going to start ordering daily goods online tomorrow, nor is online shopping an alternative for every person for every item. Some people will choose to live their entire life without a computer in their home, though they will be in the minority.

Look at where we’ve come in the last ten years. Internet use is widespread, as is extensive use of computers in daily commerce. At the same time, we’ve seen big-box stores increasingly super-size as each new one is built and another building shell is left behind. And we cannot forget the well-documented increases in traffic congestion, air pollution and environmental degradation produced by what we typically call urban sprawl. If we learn nothing else from the passing of time, we should learn that change is inevitable. How we deal with it is not.

As planners, we are charged with seeing out toward a 10- to 20-year horizon, and preparing development plans that will incrementally achieve that vision. How do we balance competing priorities of providing for existing needs and preparing for the future? Do our local governments have the will to meet these challenges, or will they let our communities take form by default? These are important questions of balance in an ever-changing, ever-moving civic, economic, and political environment.

The first question any community needs to resolve is this: How will we become part of a prosperous new economy—an economy different than what it is today? I believe a shift in consumer preference toward more convenient online shopping and more spiritually uplifting in-store shopping gives us an exceptional opportunity to dramatically change the city-building practices to which we’ve become accustomed. In addition, I believe the convention of municipal investment towards roads, and incentives for single-use buildings and parking lots, may no longer be a prudent community development practice.

Each local government will have to partner with the local development community to adjust place-making and big-box construction priorities for their own new economy. We are entering an era where the trend of citizens and customers are finding it increasingly unacceptable to bear the entire cost of goods and service delivery through automobile-oriented shopping destinations. NIMBYs are becoming increasingly abundant. In an era where product information will be available virtually in every home, the amount of in-store shopping will most certainly decrease over time. It already has. An average American currently spends 34 minutes a day shopping, as opposed to 54 in 1960. In response, local governments may choose to invest more in public realm enhancements around neighborhood and town centers to attract citizens who value a more attractive sense of community rather than investing in more roadways to new regional malls and big-box stores at the outskirts of town.

Local governments should be thinking about the consequences of such changes, even with projected population growth. They should strategize how public infrastructure resources will be allocated cost-effectively if there are fewer vehicle trips to and from automobile-oriented shopping centers and big box stores. In re-allocating investment priorities over time, local government should address squarely the increasing demand for pedestrian-oriented commercial centers with third places, and local, multi-modal transportation systems to support them. Exemplary models are being constructed that encourage people to “hang-out” in the company of their friends and neighbors, as well as buy things.

Local governments should also be preparing for conversion of large-format retail stores into local distribution points for home delivery. For example, any new big-box stores may be required to have reinforced concrete floors that allow in the future for point loads of internal warehouse vehicles and equipment. Site development approvals may require traffic patterns to be configured to accommodate over time more large and small truck traffic and less customer automobile traffic.


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