Giving Urban Retail a Competitive Edge

With Principles of Urban Retail Planning and Development, Robert J. Gibbs, ASLA, a landscape architect and planner, has written a comprehensive guide to revitalizing retail in old urban centers. In the forward to the book, Stefanos Poloyzoides describes the post-World War II decline of old American cities and the corresponding rise of automobile-dominated sprawl, writing “During our lifetime, ‘suburbia’ and ‘slaburbia’ have together come close to destroying nearly 400 years of city making in the United States.” This expansion of sprawl has precipitated an exodus of urban retail and suburban shopping centers now dominate the retail industry. Gibbs writes, “This book focuses on explicating the retail principles for restoring neighborhoods, villages, towns, and urban commercial districts to their traditional roles as the local and regional centers for commerce and trade.” Addressing issues including convenience, parking, store type, and scale, Principles of Urban Retail aims to “give merchants on the street the same competitive advantage that those in the most profitable shopping centers enjoy.”

With more people moving back into old urban areas, this book is timely. Gibbs emphasizes that thriving retail is a crucial component of a vibrant community, and therefore retail planning and design is critical to urban revitalization. Simply building at a high density does not necessarily lead to vibrant street life; retail and shopping areas must be as carefully designed, and Principles of Urban Retail is a truly comprehensive resource for their development.

Gibbs discusses all of the various ways that design influences how people shop. For instance, while trees are generally good to have, small trees that block storefronts are detrimental to retail. As evidenced by the failed attempts at converting city streets into pedestrian malls in the 1970s, on-street parking is critical for urban retail as are anchor stores. Gibbs covers seemingly insignificant details such as sidewalk design (sidewalks should be nice, but not so nice that they distract from storefronts) and site furnishings (furnishings such as lamp posts should be replaced every eight to ten years in order to stay fashionable).

Principles of Urban Retail does a great job at covering the major and minor principles of retail and gives extensive recommendations on pretty much everything. If you’ve been agonizing over an acceptable angle of pitch for your awning, this book is for you (steeper than 25 degrees is unacceptable). Still, this flood of recommendations can be a little overwhelming. For instance, the chapter on “Shopping Center Built-Form Types” discusses the relative advantages and disadvantages of different kinds of shopping centers. We must consider the strip center, the linear strip center, the single L center, the U courtyard center, the double reverse L center, the lifestyle center, the dumbbell center, the market square center, the double market square center, the floating main street, the linear square center, the half block center, the retail crescent center, and the deflected blocks center. While these definitions can feel overly prescriptive for designers, it’s likely an invaluable toolkit for planners and developers.

In general, I found this book to be most intriguing as a guide to revitalizing old urban shopping districts. I was less convinced by Gibbs’ discussions regarding the design of new town centers. For instance, the book uses the mixed-use development Mashpee Commons as a case study of a successful new town center. Gibbs writes, “Mashpee is especially noteworthy for its pioneering new urbanism adaptation of an existing strip shopping center into a walkable mixed-use town center, as well as for its authentic vernacular architectural design.”

A few years ago I had the privilege of eating at a restaurant in Mashpee Commons with my family. Located off of the highway, among the shopping malls, Mashpee Commons is disconnected from its surroundings. Given no other options, we accessed the Commons by car as we would any suburban shopping center. The development had a Disney-urbanism feeling about it, a kind of movie-set approximation of a small New England town. In fact, everyone in my family remarked that it felt “fake” and “surreal.”

And how walkable is an area that you have to drive to? After all, any mall is walkable once you are inside it. While I do think that its mixed-use design was a step in the right direction for its time, I do not think simply mixing commercial and residential uses is good enough anymore. Our new retail centers should certainly be walkable and mixed use but they should also be drawn from their ecological, social, and physical contexts. Ignoring context and trying to recreate 19th century urbanism feels, at least in the case of Mashpee Commons, weirdly simulated.

Gibbs’ examples of new town centers are perhaps successful from a retail standpoint, but they are also presented as successful examples of urban design, and I am not convinced that all of them work in this regard. Furthermore, ecological sustainability is barely mentioned. Shouldn’t ecology be central to any discussion about urban form, even one oriented around retail?

To be clear, this book should be required reading for urban planners trying to revitalize old town centers, or anyone with an interest in the mechanics of urban retail. I just wish Gibbs were a bit more critical about how we approach urban design. Suburban sprawl is indefensible, but that doesn’t mean imitating what came before it is the solution.

Read the book.

This guest post is by Benjamin Wellington, Student ASLA, master’s of landscape architecture candidate, Louisiana State University, and ASLA 2012 summer intern.

Image credit: Wiley & Sons

2 thoughts on “Giving Urban Retail a Competitive Edge

  1. readerareadevelopment 08/17/2012 / 10:33 am

    Sounds like a good read! I agree with you, imitation isn’t the solution, but a deep understanding of why and how it works is the first step. It’s wishful thinking, but if city, council, and citizens were all somehow on board, sprawl could be easily stopped and building patterns could be reconfigured. But few would pick up good books like this!

  2. Andrew Hammonds 08/22/2012 / 5:18 pm

    I share “readerareadevelopment” sentiment. Suburban sprawl is bad and is not inevitable. But it is a big tanker ship which can only slowly be turned. Obviously renewal and redevelopment in existing areas is best. However, delivering urbanism in new suburbs can enable people to experience the benefits. Informed consumers are a big part of the solution.

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