Study: American mobility leads to architectural monotony

28 Sep

One of the most frequent complaints about single-use, low-density suburban development is its tendency toward sameness.  But the same predictability of housing forms and commercial establishments crops up in new mixed-use and transit-oriented developments in the city. Why is that, and what does it mean about us?

A group of social scientists looked into that phenomenon, and a report on their findings is getting a lot of attention this week.

Americans’ tendency to relocate frequently, the scientists said, generates a desire to seek out familiar things in new surroundings.

From the report’s abstract:

 “We propose that this paradox can be explained by American mobility: Residential mobility fosters familiarity-seeking and familiarity-liking, while allowing individuals to pursue their personal goals and desires. We reason that people are drawn to familiar objects (e.g., familiar, national chain stores) when they move.”

In a Washington Post op-ed, University of Maryland’s Roger Lewis wrote that the people who plan and finance new development count on that impulse when they decide what to put where and how it should look. “Familiarity-seeking is no surprise to retailers, nor to commercial and residential real estate developers, investors and lenders. Like those who build, consumers instinctively feel most comfortable embracing the known, the predictable, the tried and true,” Lewis said.

Hardcore urbanists tend to reflexively look askance at the inclusion of national chains and sometimes have little patience with people who are drawn to them (the word “sheep” seems to pop up a lot). But Kaid Benfield at the National Resources Defense Council suggests a more pragmatic approach. “National franchises and chain stores can and do change their standard building design to ‘fit in’ with the local character of the surrounding community,” he wrote. “But they only do this in communities savvy enough to insist on something better than off-the-shelf, ‘cookie cutter’ architecture.”

One example of making retail functions fit into the form of the neighborhood is the “DC USA” retail development across the street from the Columbia Heights Metro station in D.C. It wedges a Target, Marshall’s, Best Buy, Bed Bath and Beyond, Lane Bryant, GNC, Staples, Radio Shack, Bank of America, a gym, a children’s clothing store and parking deck into a multi-level space with on-street access and a smaller footprint than some downtown Atlanta parking lots. (Does the name “DC USA” remind anyone else of “Buckhead Atlanta?”)

The Edgewood Retail District on Moreland Avenue, on the other hand, is sometimes criticised for the suburban-style surface parking that partially cuts it off from the street and makes it difficult for pedestrians to navigate the area around the largest stores. 

As for the theory of familiarity-seeking itself, some commentors at The Atlantic Cities were skeptical and offered more mundane explanations.

“So let’s make this real simple: chains tend to be cheaper, they’re in convenient locations (near highway interchanges and other thoroughfares), and they offer uniform levels of quality on a national basis. Not that complicated … unless you’re a social scientist in need of grant money,” wrote commenter “Adam Minter.”

“Celeidth” agreed that the only longing chain stores fulfill is the longing to hurrying up and finish shopping, and wrote “I don’t get any particular emotional pleasure from visiting Target, but I sure get pleasure from getting my errands done as quickly as possible in the chain store that’s closest to my house. I know that they are likely to have what I need when I need it.”

Here’s a link to the report abstract. Alas, access to a PDF of the full text is $11.95 unless you have a way around the paywall through a university.

H/T to Planetizen

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