The Walkable Urbanism of Big Box Stores

Writing in Discourse Magazine, Addison Del Mastro compares the layout of a typical superstore with a traditional historic downtown, and finds some surprising similarities. While the vast majority of Walmarts and their ilk are located in car-oriented communities surrounded by seas of parking, their interior layouts oddly mirror the grid of a classic small town, Del Mastro writes.

“The idea of a commercial space aping the design of a city is somewhat familiar when it comes to the suburban shopping mall. Malls were famously designed after urban downtowns or shopping districts by the European-born architect Victor Gruen, who envisioned them not as churches of consumerism but as weather-free, and traffic-free, diminutive cities.” (More on that in Alexandra Lange’s book, Meet Me by the Fountain: An Inside History of the Mall.)

Walmart replicated this at massive scale. “And so what the big-box discount department store effectively did was consolidate and transpose almost every classic Main Street enterprise—clothing, toys, crafts,  decor, electronics, hardware and groceries —and place them all under one roof, under one corporate enterprise, in a massive, car-oriented property on the edge of town.”

For Del Mastro, the car-free aspect is the most interesting. “By segregating the cars completely outside and making the ‘streets’ car-free—something often deemed suspect or radical when attempted in actual cities—the shopping experience becomes safer and more convenient to the customer.”

Ultimately, there is an important lesson to be learned from the behemoth often credited with killing small town economies. “If we could transpose the commercially vibrant walkability of a modern Walmart back to the downtowns it killed, those towns would be better off.” This shows that “despite the political framings and stereotypes around transportation and land use issues, the desirability of commerce in a walkable setting transcends political lines.” When stripped of its political baggage, people just like walkability.

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