Sunday, October 26, 2008

What if Wal-Mart wanted to move into the Delano District?: Big-box retailers and the idea of community

This is only tangentially cycling-related, I know. Visitors here also know, though, that a larger concern of this blog is the taking seriously of the importance--indeed, the near-certain coming--of the of the need to change fundamentally how we think about and travel between/among our living and work spaces (thanks, Andrew) and the role that cycling, and mass/alternate transit more generally, can play in that discussion.

Via Matthew Yglesias comes this meditation at Greater Greater Washington on the place of big-box retailers in an urban environment. These posts, along with the comments in each, make for "Hmmm"-inducing reading, especially as I think about these questions with regard to our much-smaller city.

Truth be told, I personally find Wal-Mart loathsome and do what I can not to shop there. But--as commenters at both posts say--what's loathsome about these stores is certain business practices of theirs and not the big-box concept per se. Humans in the West being the capitalism-trained Pavlov's Dogs that we are, we have come to crave and even insist on selection and, if possible, low costs--in both price and the effort required of us to acquire them--for our goods. Hence the insidiousness of the big-box retail model accompanying their above-mentioned loathsomeness. Suburbia may be in decline, but does that imply as well we'll soon be hearing the death-knell of the big-box? Or will it take on some other form? Have a look at the comments at those posts for some examples of those possible forms that already exist, here and there.

Complicating my thinking about all this is the still-fresh memory of my recent trip to Mexico City. Mexico not only has Wal-Marts, it also has its own, domestic versions of big-boxes. Yet, as I noted in my comment on my recent post on my trip, almost everyone, except for the extremely-well-off living in the hills above the city, lives within a block at least one pharmacy or small grocery store or small clothing store or myriad little restaurants or . . . you get the idea. As for other, more esoteric needs, they are easily accessible via the city's excellent subway and bus systems--so much so that, as my wife noted several times, you don't really need to have a car to get around there. That urban environment presents a convenience of a different sort. It, frankly, is something like what I have in mind when, in past posts on this blog, I've talked about the idea of "community" (as distinct from "neighborhood," which I think of as being more overtly residential in nature).

So: what if Wal-Mart approached the good people of the Delano District (for the benefit of out-of-towners, here is that district's vision of itself) and said, "We've had a good look at your neighborhood revitalization plan and think we have some ideas for how we might be a good fit, both for what you envision for yourselves and for our goal of making some money." That's an enormous open-ended question, of course, but one I think worthy of pondering by all concerned interests before we get too far down the road of thinking about and planning for the changes in urban and suburban landscapes that we're all but certain to see in the coming decades.

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