the urban prospector

Searching for Golden Opportunities in America's Cities

Small Thinking For Great Cities


Often times there are parallels that are found between nature and human society. An easy example is evolution which has been used when analyzing music, cultures, technology and business. A conceptual parallel that I would like to explore in depth is the importance of the small. Hydrogen is the smallest atom, yet it accounts for 75% of the elemental mass of the observable universe. It takes a lot of energy to build heavier elements, which means the lighter elements are not only more common, but they also make up a larger portion of the mass of the universe. In the biome, bacteria is likely to make up at the same mass as all plants and animals. There is more competitive space among small organisms than large organisms. Small particles are more reactive than lager ones. While grain is relatively inert, grain dust can cause major explosions. The greater the ratio of surface area to volume, the greater the reactivity.

How does the importance of the small reflect itself in society? There are several aspects of urban spaces that need a focus on the small including streets, public spaces, economic development and retail. Each of these items will be given a minor discussion here and will be retouched upon in later posts.

Streets are the place where public life happens. As Jan Gehl has been preaching for the past several decades; cities are meant for people not cars. There has long been an expectation that one should be able to move quickly through a city by car. Too many urban streets have been designed for high speed high volume through traffic without concern for other users. Neighborhoods are passed through, not experienced. Because of the increased difficulty and danger of crossing streets, pedestrians are likely to limit their time and the number of stops they make in the neighborhood. The result of this is decreased commercial activity and a continued focus on designing streets for cars. The proliferation of big streets has allowed this to happen. Finding a correct balance between large streets and small streets will make it easier for people to move through cities on foot, bike and transit while eliminating the expectation of speeding across town in a car. How should this street balance look? The vast majority of streets in any neighborhood, including urban core areas should be local streets. These streets should be narrow, have all way stops and 15 mph speed limits. The major streets should only be those that are primary connectors to other neighborhoods and cities. These can be wider, but still should be kept as small as possible and limited to 20 mph. Only on a limited access highway should anyone expect to drive at a high speed in an urban area.

Baltimore Street in Cumberland, MD combines a small street with numerous small storefronts for a potentially vibrant streetscape.

Baltimore Street in Cumberland, MD combines a small street with numerous small storefronts for a potentially vibrant streetscape.

Public spaces can also benefit from thinking small. Many cities have large public spaces that are devoid of life. Modernist city halls seem to be a common location of such spaces including ones in Boston, Dallas and my hometown of Grand Rapids, MI. These plazas were designed in a way that emphasizes the mass of buildings while ignoring the needs of people. The end result is plazas that create nice pictures but have no action. Creating wide open spaces can be harmful to urban areas. Studies by Jan Gehl and William H. Whyte have shown that public plazas are most used in areas that present some form of an edge. The edge can be a wall, column or stairs. Large flat areas can be fixed with event programing such as farmers markets which act to divide the space into smaller increments. Creating more surface length within the park can allow for more activity. An easy way to increase the surface area of a park is to form smaller spaces. All public spaces at a minimum need to be able to create the space for a friendly conversation. This could be as simple as locating a couple of benches along the sidewalk at a corner. Carving out space for conversation is essential to the functioning of public spaces. Breaking larger public spaces into a series of smaller spaces and creating pocket parks and small community gardens will go a long way towards increasing the surface length to area ratio. Smaller parks not only have a higher surface length to area ratio, but also use fewer resources in their construction. By focusing on small spaces in parks and plazas, cities can have more lively and heavily used public spaces.

Economic development is another realm where thinking small creates greater results. Often times cities and states offer great tax cuts and other incentives to encourage large companies to move to their area.  While this strategy can successfully bring new jobs to the region, it can easily backfire. After a company moves, what prevents them from being lured to another location with a better deal? Instead of incentivizing the relocation of large companies, local governments should work to increase the number of small businesses in their area. Small businesses are more flexible than large corporations and thus can more easily adapt to new market opportunities. It is the adapting to these opportunities that create the large corporations of tomorrow. As Jane Jacobs said, “Rather, when this process (creation of new products) operates vigorously, it depends on large numbers and great diversity of economic organizations, some of which, of course, grow large in their heydays.”Focusing on the development of small businesses plants the seeds for future economic growth.

Thinking small works particularly well for retail business. With the suburbanization of America, there has been a trend for increasing size of retail floor space. The big box universe that has surrounded our cities is falling apart due to technological shifts to online shopping. Across the country, stores are going empty and large retail companies are going bankrupt. Not everywhere is experiencing this retail failure. The East Village of Manhattan and Hayes Valley in San Francisco have a thriving retail environment.  In these neighborhoods, shopping on the street can be more convenient than shopping online.  Many factors lead to this result, but among them is the existence of small stores. Small stores do several things that make them more resilient than big box designs. Small square footage allows for lower rents and thus lowered barriers to entering the market. More people can start their own businesses with the lower rents. Small stores, can serve smaller markets. A small niche that could not be supported in a large store can thrive in a small store. When  a series of small stores exist in a true urban setting, people walking past these stores on their way to work, school, or other destinations are able to window shop effortlessly. The line of stores increases the variability of pedestrian experience. This is something that does not happen as people walk past long stretches of blank walls that typically accompany large stores. Given the choice of walking past a long blank wall and a vibrant streetscape such as those created with numerous small stores, people will choose the vibrant streetscape. Pretty simple concept, but when the implications for pedestrian traffic are considered, this makes the blank streetscape a poor choice from an economic standpoint.

So those are some ways in which cities can benefit by thinking small. Many more may exist. In my next few posts, I will delve into these issues in greater depth.

2 thoughts on “Small Thinking For Great Cities

  1. Regarding cities or UEZ’s trying to lure big business to them, I agree that it can backfire because they could bolt for the next city that is ready to hand them the keys. But I do think you have to attract at least one large company before smaller businesses follow suit. Newark has the advantage of being in an incredibly connected and accessible part of the tri-state. Newark luring Panasonic in for example, will hopefully guide smaller businesses in. I don’t see Panasonic bolting for a city like Camden or Baltimore due to their 18 minute train ride to NYC or the short ride to the NJTurnpike.

    When you say smaller companies, do you mean smaller chains/franchises or independent businesses or both?

    • Hopefully Panasonic will help Newark. It would take longer, but starting up economic growth through small firms would still provide more sustainable economic growth. Ideally, Newark will take Panasonic’s relocation as a chance to spur interest and bring in these small firms. A lot of my thinking on this issue is shaped by Jane Jacobs, “The Economy of Cities.” Essentially the idea is that new opportunities open up at random times and companies that are more able to adapt and take advantage of the opportunities are the ones that succeed and grow the economy. A franchise like Jiffy Lube will not be able to modify its business model to adapt to new business opportunities related to, but not part of their current business. It really needs to be an independent store. A smaller chain may be able to adapt, but the larger it gets, the more set in its business model it will be.

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