Tag Archives: mobility

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

Idea of the Day: Mobility versus access

11 Feb

Red line train at Civic Center Station

Among the un-read content languishing on my RSS feed was this examination of the two overlapping services that users expect from transit, why they aren’t interchangeable, and how more of one reduces the need for the other.

Jarrett Walker at Human Transit proposes that by providing or increasing mobility – in this context, the ability to travel a certain distance quickly and easily- transit makes more of a city accessible to more people. But, Walker says, by stimulating increased commercial and residential density, well-executed transit encourages increased access – in this context, the ease with which a person can arrive at a desired destination.

That’s where things get interesting.

From the post:

Mobility is how far you can go in a given time.  Access is how many useful or valuable things you can do.  If a new grocery store opens near your house, that doesn’t improve your mobility but it does improve your access.  You can now get your groceries closer to home, so you don’t need as much mobility as you did before.  You can also improve your access by working at home instead of commuting, downloading music instead of going to a CD store, and moving in with your romantic partner.  In other words, a lot of the work of access is simply about eliminating the need to move your body around the city in order to complete the economic and personal transactions that make up a happy life.

Juxtaposing mobility and access brings to mind Atlanta’s several far-flung patches of “drive-to urbanism.” These developments sometimes skip right over the step in which transit generates increased density, instead introducing ready-made density in areas with sparse transit coverage. In another city or another economic climate, transit coverage might be expected to eventually catch up and complete the picture. Right now, though, the result is often lively, pleasant, somewhat isolated places that are only easily accessible to people who live nearby or who can drive there.

But as more of these islands of increased density appear throughout the city, access to them will increase for more people. That will, as Walker said, reduce the need to move bodies around the city to get to what those developments offer.

Atlanta has seen significant mixed-use and transit-oriented development in the last ten years. It has also seen not only the absence of development of transit itself, but a significant reduction in service. Will car-banism continue to reign or is it just step on the way to something better?

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