Main streets are making a come back. Or at least the ones that hung on through the decades of suburban sprawl are, and now they reaping the benefits of that persistence. I’m referring to the urban neighbourhoods that were built 60 – 100 years ago and were serviced by a centralised main street with plethora of boutique shopping options. They are urban usually because they are old and the city has grown around them. They are urban because they exist on a scale foreign to what suburban residents consider normal. They are urban because the medley of stores are not a familiar pattern like we have in every new development across the country. You know the formula of big box grocery store, attached to big box pet store, adjacent to big box home wares store, which shares the parking lot with big box hardware store, and so on. It really doesn’t matter if you live in the west end or east end of your respective city the commercial layout is within a small tolerance of variation. I call this the beigification of our developments.
The main streets we see thriving are tight, leased space is extremely tight, electric hydro poles litter the streetscape and pedestrian traffic is a thing. Not just car traffic but pedestrian traffic and bicycle traffic is a thing. It is also not unusual to have people loitering on benches or public seating on these main streets which is a catalyst for human interaction, neighbours getting to know each other and people stimulating each other in different ways. That mix is an age of recipe of community. That mix is difficult to achieve in planned developments where store fronts are set back from the side walk dozens of meters to accommodate the parking lot out front. Pedestrians don’t invest the time and energy required to stroll from shop to shop because the businesses stand dozens of meters from each other as a result of being surround by vast swaths of asphalt to accommodate the car. We essentially have commercial islands where each retailer is its own isolated island and customers only arrive via automobile. Win for cars, loss for community.
The parking lot shouldn’t take all the blame though and the car is certainly not the enemy. Both play an important role in our towns and cities but the planning of infrastructure, zoning, building layouts, and planning is what requires greater commitment. We see countless examples of big box stores that open up shop in establish older neighbourhoods where they have been forced to arrange themselves with the parking around back and expand the accessibility and usable public space against the sidewalk. This keeps the human scale of the main street in tact and does nothing to deter the car drivers. The greatest planning fail I see where I live is the islandification of suburban retail stores which kills the capacity for families pushing a stroller or anyone to enjoy a leisurely stroll through main st. Next time you are driving through a small rural community with a quaint attractive main st ask yourself why you like it and what is different about it compared to the drag of strip malls most of us are forced to shop at in our suburban neighbourhoods?