Editorial: Beyond Retail: Envisioning the Future of Main Streets
CONRAD KICKERT and EMILY TALEN
As thousands of retail establishments close in cities on both sides of the Atlantic, we face a future where non-retail uses will become an increasingly significant and permanent part of our urban main streets.1 After decades of simmering urban retail decline, the demise of physical retailers in cities has accelerated in recent decades due to the rise of e-commerce and in recent years due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Most European main streets now cope with double-digit storefront vacancy rates and over a fifth of Manhattan’s storefronts were vacant at the end of 2021 (Mischler and Persichetti, 2021). In many disinvested neighbourhoods, vacancy is the defining characteristic of once thriving main streets.
While there are ample strategies to stem the decline in main street retail or offset it with other commercial uses like bars and restaurants – often focusing on the unique sense of place, sociability, and discovery that physical storefront businesses can offer – the downward retail trend is undeniable and irreversible. Faster than ever before, our main streets and their storefronts are losing their role as places of monetary transaction and consumption (Kickert, 2021). However, this does not equate to main streets losing their relevance as urban destinations – if we plan, develop, design, and manage them correctly to welcome new functions beyond retail.
This special issue of Built Environment explores what these new functions could mean for urban main streets in Europe and the United States. Seven articles by authors from America and Europe transcend the common perception of ‘existential crisis’ associated with retail decline (Carmona, 2022), instead exploring futures that are affirming for our cities. Instead of mourning the loss of retail, the authors investigate the hopefulness of new conceptualizations of main street and new storefront uses – uses that can make our main streets more sociable, inclusive, creative, productive, and frankly, more exciting. Now more than ever, we as professionals have the opportunity and the responsibility to shift the main street narrative.
In short, we need to plan, develop, design, and manage main streets to make the most of current realities. This requires some out-of-the-box thinking: can main street be reimagined as something other than an aggregate of stores, bars, restaurants, and coffee houses? Consumerism is so engrained in the urban experience that it may be difficult to imagine what urbanism without consumer transactions might be like (Sennett, 1977, 1990). And storefront businesses do a lot more than facilitate consumption. We tacitly ask store owners, chefs, barbers, and baristas to let us socialize, build community ties, innovate, learn, transfer culture, promote walkability, battle loneliness, and even bridge social and racial divides – all while propping up the desirability and real estate value of our neighbourhoods (Alidoust et al., 2019; Anderson, 2011; Cox and Streeter 2019; Leinberger and Alfonzo, 2012; Zukin, 2004).
The central question is: as physical businesses disappear, how do we maintain the social, economic, and cultural function of main street?
A lot of the answer lies in the intentionality of our main street future. Cities and their citizens need to determine what kinds of main streets they want and need, and where focused investment needs to be prioritized. In short, main streets need to be proactively planned and cared for, not left to purely market devices that are so starkly revealing their inability to keep main streets thriving. City governments need to design a process through which this visioning and planning might occur. Developers, designers, entrepreneurs, and urbanites should be able to expand the horizons for main streets as a result. And this process needs to take place in such a way that all options are on the table – not just main street business as usual.
While it is likely that the sheer number of commercial main streets needs to contract (see Talen in this issue), main street’s functionality seems most promising in three domains that are inherently urbane: in social function, in production, and in the arts. These functions are not new – but we believe that main street’s best chance of survival is to strengthen these functions pro-actively, and in a more geographically well-defined domain. We should bolster whatever traditional consumer main street uses are able to survive but we broaden functional horizons beyond. We believe this dual approach is the best chance of survival for main streets as vital and viable urban hubs.
The goal is simple: no more vacant storefronts. Our most accessible and visible spaces offer a wealth of opportunities to make our cities more social, productive, and expressive – if we only envision, plan, design, and develop these opportunities.
First, as urbanist Vikas Mehta (2022) recently proposed, ‘if the social role of main street is to be maintained, we should seek functions that expand their role “not just for the consumers but for the community’. After all, most of the visitors to our main streets may not even be looking to buy something. A Vancouver survey demonstrated that almost twice as many downtown pedestrians were meeting friends than shopping (Gehl, 2020). Third places like coffee shops don’t just thrive on the quality of their caffeine, but on their ability to allow people to meet friends and colleagues (Oldenberg, 1989). Pedestrians also use main streets and their businesses as their way to learn about urban life, encountering and learning from strangers. Others are looking to survive and find a further footing in life. We can accommodate the need for safety, growth, and socialization in the post-retail main street through various forms of social infrastructure and educational spaces (Klinberg, 2018), which several articles in this issue will illustrate.
Second, if we want to maintain the economic role of main streets for entrepreneurial opportunities, we can (re)introduce production. In fact, this would bring the future of main streets more in line with their past. Before the Industrial Revolution and its consequent planning efforts stratified and separated production and consumption, they coexisted in a centuries-old equilibrium of producing and selling items and services along most of our main streets (Carmona, 2015; Davis, 2015; Stobart, 2010). On the other hand, the nature of production has shifted over time. Despite the promising rise of urban artisans and maker districts, most Western economic value is now generated by creative and knowledge production, especially in denser, finer-grained urban settings (Anderson, 2012; Hospers, 2003; Van Winden et al., 2007; Wolf-Powers et al., 2017). Many producers have relocated into far-flung warehouses or office towers, but we can bring their internal and external economic transactions back to main street spaces to ‘make the economy visible’ again, as the Project for Public Spaces has coined it (Storring, 2019). Frequently, layers of production and consumption blend in the same (storefront) space and can be urbane if well curated, programmed, and designed (Croxford et al., 2020), as Bacevice in this issue demonstrates.
Third, if we want to ensure that main streets continue as places of cultural and individual expression, we should continue to harness the arts in various forms. The exposure that businesses sought by locating their stores in visible main street spaces yields excellent spaces for the exposure that artists seek to share their work. Beyond hosting ‘meanwhile’ art exhibits and performances in vacant storefronts, arts can become a permanent presence on main streets, as several papers in this special issue argue (Bosetti and Colthorpe, 2018; Timms-Bottos and Reilly, 2015).
Other non-retail functions are also likely to continue filling vacant main street buildings. Health, fitness, and medical uses are top contenders for main street spaces, benefitting from their accessibility and visibility. Dwellings, too, are increasingly important, propelled by the simultaneous decline of retail, the need for more urban housing, and the resulting rise of residential real estate values. Like the return of production, living on main street merely restores the longue durée of mixing dwelling and working (Holliss, 2015; Tarbutt, 2015), although the article by Clifford and Madeddu in this issue demonstrates that significant typological issues need to be overcome to fit dwellings into existing storefront spaces.
This special issue explores the futures of urban main streets through a variety of disciplinary perspectives. Eleven authors represent sociological, business, geographical, and psychological perspectives as well as planning and architecture perspectives from the United States, the United Kingdom, and The Netherlands. The variety of disciplinary and geographical backgrounds affords this special issue the breadth to cover post-transactional main street futures from a variety of angles. After all, main streets are not merely physical settings, they represent entrepreneurial opportunities, host social and cultural exchanges, have an experiential impact, and affect real estate dynamics. Each of these perspectives, and many more, will be needed to broaden the discussion on main street futures and propose holistic improvements.
Kickert (2022) demonstrates that many main streets have lost their consumer role over the past century, allowing us to learn from the storefront transformations that have preceded us. Using the urban core of the Dutch government seat of The Hague as an example, Kickert illustrates how former storefronts have evolved to become new spaces of production, creativity, health, dwelling, and many other useful urban functions. While many storefronts have fallen vacant due to poorly implemented government policies, more recent proactive urban policies have maximized the potential of these storefronts to interact with the city.
Talen (2022) argues that there is too much retail area and that cities need to find the political and administrative determination to prioritize these areas. She develops a normative proposal about what the future of main streets in the US might be if cities prioritize them based on (most importantly) population density, as well as legacy business locations, and street characteristics with intrinsic pedestrian quality.
Parker (2022) uses interview data of merchants on the South Side of Chicago to uncover the ways that community spaces – coffee shops functioning as ‘third places’ – shifted during the pandemic. Going forward, he suggests that in addition to offering limited versions of their traditional facilitation of consumption and physical co-presence, art, and community third places can also leverage their importance in social networks to help distribute information and resources.
Izenberg, Farrand, Kaufman and Fullilove (2022) use a wider lens to the social role of main street as a place of connection and exchange. The paper describes how planned music festivals in Orange, NJ are being used to support main streets during the pandemic. Particular focus is given to what they call the tangle of main streets, which can be used to stimulate new thinking and action.
Jeong (2022) looks at the role of cultural placemaking in main street in the central city of an otherwise sprawling metropolitan area. She focuses on two arts districts in Dallas-Fort Worth, which have become successful local destinations with walkable commercial streets. Reusing storefronts for cultural placemaking can be successful, she shows, but cities need to also support affordable housing for artists and residents, and institute a community engagement process that builds incremental, long-term resilience.
Bacevice (2022) shows how production and consumption in storefronts blur as former consumer spaces transform into co-working spaces. Using three case study co-working spaces in New York City storefronts, he relates the ephemerality of the new economy’s workforce to the ephemerality of co-working spaces, both in their setup for short-term visits and their business models. Nevertheless, the extraversion of co-working culture lends means they are well suited to occupying spaces offered by storefront settings.
Finally, Clifford and Madeddu (2022) demonstrate the importance of planning regulation and design guidance to ensure that storefront transformations into dwellings yield high-quality results. Residential transformations are one of the most popular, yet most difficult post-transactional storefront transformations due to the typological mismatch between storefront transparency and layout and residents’ needs for privacy, light, air, and outdoor space. Demonstrating the stark difference in quality between storefront dwelling transformations that went through the planning process and those that were exempt from planning approval, the authors argue for stricter guidelines to ensure successful transformations.
Towards a Broader Horizon
This special issue presents an early stage in a longer journey towards expanding our main street horizons. Ultimately, the successful post-transactional transition of our main streets hinges on overcoming a series of hurdles, many of which will require further research. First of all, many cities need to pass through the political stages of grievance over lost retail to accept a broader conceptualization of main streets’ future. In fact, hard hit by retail closures in the urban core, policymakers in the United Kingdom and other European countries are doing just that, exploring post-retail futures for empty storefronts (Heebels and Dusseldorp, 2016; Portas, 2011; Regeneration Team, 2019). In the United States, acceptance and exploration of post-transactional futures is at surprisingly early stage for a country whose main streets have faced the loss of retailers decades ago. When city leaders are ready, planners can engage in visioning the future of main streets with citizens and draft the legislation needed to allow and even encourage more functions to settle along main streets. Research on successful policies to broaden main street uses without burdening existing ones through nuisance or disruption of business continuity is needed.
Fiscal and real estate research will be key to clearing the next hurdle, which is financial. Often, main street storefronts are in landlords’ books at inflated prices, under the futile assumption that a chain retail tenant will turn up. Similarly, developers may overestimate their chance to attract new retail tenants. A mixture of vacancy taxation and cost-sharing will be required to open their minds to post-transactional functions, many of which cannot afford retail rents. A new cohort of developers understands the significant value of viable, urbane, yet non-retail street-level uses and cross-subsidizes them from increased upstairs revenue. This is of course harder to achieve for existing spaces along main streets, especially with scattered ownership.
The final hurdle is ensuring that the design of post-transactional spaces along main streets maximize their internal qualities for tenants as well as their interaction with the sidewalk through high-quality, interactive street-level architecture. Several articles in this special issue provide examples of well-designed spaces, but principles to ensure that storefronts continue their role as urban ‘membranes’ of interaction beyond their consumer life remain elusive (Sennett, 2018). How to clear these hurdles will be fertile ground for future research.
1. We use the uncapitalized term ‘main street’ as a generic reference to urban commercial corridors. High Street is the usual term in the UK although main street is more common in Scotland and Ireland. There is also Big Street (Sweden and Norway), Head Street (Netherlands), Main Road (Cambodia), and Large Road (Malaysia).
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