Supermarkets as anchors for a walkable America

May 19, 2010

by syndicated columnist Neil Pierce, The Seattle Times

Supermarkets surrounded by acres of asphalt. Pushcarts heavily loaded with groceries wheeled out, the haul stashed in car trunks. Always a drive often several miles to get food. We perfected the buy-and-drive model from the post-World War II expansion onward. But is it necessarily the future? 

No, asserts my Seattle friend and urban design planner Mark Hinshaw. He sees a dramatically transformed role for supermarkets. They’ll actually become the anchors of new and walkable neighborhoods, he predicts in a Planning magazine article co-authored with markets analyst Brian Vanneman.

Why the shift? Americans’ high personal consumption levels were starting to wind down even before the Great Recession. Households have shrunk in size and the population is aging, with more taste for close-by shops and facilities. Many young people are eschewing the scattered suburban pattern in favor of denser urban living. Buying a house on the urban fringe, once seen as a ticket to wealth-building, now looks to be a big risk. Walking for health and weight loss has begun, for many Americans, to outshine the sedentary lifestyle of using an auto for every conceivable errand. And many people are looking for ways to reduce their carbon footprint.

But are those shifts big enough to let neighborhood-based supermarkets compete with and maybe outpace the drive-only suburban locations? You’ll wonder, as I did.

But Hinshaw’s predictive track record is impressive. He was the first person to tell me, precisely 25 years ago, that post-World War II suburbs such as Bellevue, across Lake Washington from Seattle, could become true urban places on their own. I had fun writing the story the prospect of Bellevue, the place they used to call “car city,” all strip commercial, no sidewalks and “potentially terminal boredom,” turning itself into a Class A center with high-rise buildings, plazas, parks and cafes.

And in fact the transformation has occurred, not just in Bellevue but in revamped old suburban sites around major cities coast to coast.

Today, Hinshaw asserts, grocery stores are re-emerging “as one of the cornerstones of great places to live.” Many are becoming social spaces, with espresso bars and welcoming seating. “People hang out, read the paper or a book, and meet friends — even when buying groceries isn’t part of the trip.”

In reviving center cities, residents clamor for new grocery stores. Foodwise, the new market wave offers amenities residents crave ultra-fresh vegetables and fruits, organic choices, varieties of fresh fish, specialty breads, spices and bottled spirits.

Will lack of parking crimp the growth of city and neighborhood markets? No, argues Hinshaw. A growing number of new markets are offering just a few dozen parking slots, some none at all. The new niche is people who carry two bags of groceries out by hand every few days, rather than transporting a dozen or more bags by car twice a month. Buying more frequently also means bringing home the freshest available foods.

The environs do make a difference. A market with an attractive public space outside some kind of public square will have an edge. The planners’ “rule of thumb” that people will only walk a quarter-mile isn’t true, Hinshaw contends. Make the walk interesting no blank walls, no parking lots, but rather a mix of parks and gardens and public space, and interesting stores to glance in and folks will walk farther.

That’s why Hinshaw sees supermarkets as the anchors of “main street”-centered neighborhoods with dimensions of some four to five blocks. A market needs a surrounding population of 8,000 to 10,000 people, or about 4,000 houses, to succeed. The same population base can sustain another 50,000 to 80,000 square feet of shops and services.

One could expect a variety of places people want perhaps a library, a community health clinic, a community center or town hall. And rather than some preplanned perfect architectural order, a “messy vitality” of different types of uses and building sizes would seem in order.

The formula wouldn’t work for spread-out subdivisions, but there are thousands of locations across the U.S. where it could.

Hinshaw’s overarching vision of walkable neighborhoods centered on our most-used facility of all our food markets is not just a nostalgic idea. It makes eminent sense for planning the next generation of American neighborhoods, and remaking the ones we have.

Neal Peirce’s column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Seattle Times. His e-mail address is nrp(at)citistates(dot)com.

2010, Washington Post Writers Group