Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Suburbs rise.

Recently, there was an interesting story on Chron.com analyzing the retail growth currently being experienced by Houston suburbs.  On the surface, this is a fairly easy conclusion: retail is booming in the suburbs because that's where the people live and people want to shop near to their residences. Unfortunately this isn't a theme that jives with the mantra of New Urbanism so the chron.comments area river of fire.

I've linked before to this Keep Houston Houston post about ethnic diversity in Hosuton's Suburbs vs. it's inner, urban core and I believe it's pertinent to the results found here.  Big box retailers love diversity, it provides a fruitful market for a variety of goods and services which allows them to keep shelves well-stocked.  For the most part, niche, small stores tend to serve a much narrower demographic, so they tend to locate near where that target demographic resides. Pedestrian Pete may have a desire to walk into a gourmet, fake-French Bistro in Houston's museum district for an espresso and croissant but the average Houston-area resident is just fine driving through some chain to pick up a coffee and breakfast sandwich.  Of course, Pedestrian Pete doesn't work any longer, is very wealthy, and spends considerable time in the South of France luxuries not enjoyed by a vast majority of the citizenry.

For the average Houston-area work-a-day citizen that breakfast trip is just a precursor to trying to get everything done on Saturday.  While the fedora wearing Pete is sitting idly and watching the world go by Johnny suburb is running to Home Depot to grab a part to fix a toilet, heading to the store to pick up a last minute item for lunch, taking the kids to the mall to buy new shoes because the ones they have are wearing out and trying to decide what his family is going to eat for lunch today because there probably won't be time to cook for them given their busy schedule.

Based on that schedule, they're more likely to head to a big-box department store for their purchases than they are to hop-scotch their way through several boutique stores all while trying to find a good parking spot that won't result in the City of Houston issuing them a violation.

When you take those items into consideration it's no wonder the outlying cities are out-pacing Houston in terms of retail growth.  They're meeting the needs of the market, which is nothing more than economics 101.

1 comment:

  1. There are so many assumptions built into our society, like, "I need a way to fix my toilet" or "I need a place to work on my car" or "I need a yard for my kids to play in." These are really just ideas that have been embedded into our culture over the last 100 years. Suburban retail has indeed risen to meet (and perpetuate) that market.

    However, if a family were to live in an multi-unit structure in a neighborhood well serviced by transit and walkable shops, those assumptions can be replaced. Instead of needing to go to Home Depot, your housing association, landlord, or you yourself could hire workers to fix things. The need for a garage and all of the attendant tools to fix your car or house disappears. Instead of playing in the yard, your kids can go to the local park.

    What you're left with, as far as retail needed, are grocery stores, clothing stores, and stores for other consumables. Many times, people already make "hopscotch" trips to each of these kinds of stores, just by car instead of by walking or transit.

    There isn't yet any place in Houston that can fully "sell" the automobile free, multifamily dwelling lifestyle. There are plenty of people who desire it and are willing to pay top dollar for it. If such a community were to appear where cost of living is comparable to suburban living, then we could correctly compare whether people prefer one or the other. For now, though, it's unfair to say that Betty, who lives in a garden apartment complex just outside the loop, really wouldn't want to live in a walkable Midtown complex for the same cost of living.

    You also seem to believe a myth that the suburban arrangement came about solely out of free market forces. This is flat out false. The housing market and development industry have been thoroughly distorted by government intervention (e.g. 30 year mortgages implicitly guaranteed by the government), making suburban living the most accessible option. You can't sit there and claim that this is the free market at work and accuse the urbanists of touting an inferior or elitist product.

    So how do we build a walkable community that's affordable for the common family? It may require a massive re-orienting of development policy and incentives. It may require income restrictions or rent controls for a certain percentage of housing. It's a tough nut to crack, but one that is worth cracking. We have to move to a less energy-intensive society (i.e. less dependence on automobiles) if we're going to truly solve the problems of global warming and fossil fuel depletion.

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