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A failed defense of strip development

  • Sunday, April 06 2008 @ 01:23 PM CEST
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An analysis of an article written by Randal O'Toole as a "defense" of U.S.-style "strip development".

An analysis of

In Defense of Strip Developments
by Randal O'Toole

Original located at http://ti.org/vaupdate42.html.

Original text in italic, quoted.

Analysis/comment by Greg Byshenk.

Fifty years ago, urban planners applied the term "blight" to areas where property values were falling due to crime, pollution, and/or lack of investment. Planners promised to end blight through urban renewal, which usually meant completely replacing existing neighborhoods with high-priced housing and/or urban monuments.

In 1961, Jane Jacob's book "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" showed that many of the so-called blighted areas that the planners wanted to clear were in fact healthy, vibrant neighborhoods. The book helped kill urban renewal programs. But while she wrote her book as a warning against the hubris of planners who think they know how to fix urban problems, few people heeded this important message.

Today, planners still want to fix urban blight. But their definition of blight has expanded to include many more areas that are economically healthy and vibrant. Blight is now purely an aesthetic judgment, often aimed at commercial and residential areas that rely on automobiles.

Is there any evidence to support this claim? While this is not a footnote-laden scholarly article, the extraordinary claim that "[b]light is now purely an aesthetic judgment" would seem to call for at least something to support it. To be sure, many people do condemn the aesthetics of "strip malls", (not only planners, but also others, including those who are happy to use strip malls despite their aesthetic characteristics), but I am not aware of any planners who declare them to be "urban blight" based on what is "purely an aesthetic judgment".

A primary target of planners today is the strip development, those streets that seem lined with endless repetitions of Safeways, K-Marts, McDonalds, Exxons, and other commercial outlets. Planners say strip developments are ugly, and admittedly they aren't the prettiest streets in the world. Yet, as sociologist Herbert Gans points out, "areas that are uninteresting to the visitor may be quite vital to the people who live in them."

Just as laundry rooms can provide valuable household services without being pretty, strip developments can provide a valuable urban service without being pretty. While it would be possible to go to the effort to make strip developments more aesthetically appealing, the cost of doing so would end up significantly increasing consumer costs. Since people in many areas have a choice between streets of pretty boutiques and strip developments, and often choose the latter, it appears that we are willing to sacrifice aesthetics for efficiency.

Which is all well and good, except this is a battle with a straw man, as the objection to "strip development" is not "purely an aesthetic judgment" -- as O'Toole seems to recognize in the very next paragraph.

But we have a problem here. If, as O'Toole argues, there are other, "more important reason[s] why planners hate strip developments", then how can it be the case that such is "purely an aesthetic judgment"?

A more important reason why planners hate strip developments is that they are "auto dependent." Planners think people should live in communities where they can walk to shopping areas and ride transit to work. Here is where planners betray their cluelessness about modern urban living.

Planners go "to great pains to learn what the saints and sages of modern orthodox planning have said about how cities ought to work and what ought to be good for people," Jane Jabocs observed. "When contradictory reality intrudes, threatening to shatter their dearly won learning, they must shrug reality aside." With respect to automobiles, Jacobs added that planners "do not know what to do with automobiles in cities because they do not know how to plan for workable and vital cities anyhow -- with or without automobiles."

In 1961, when Jacobs published "The Death and Life," the "saints and sages" were saying that high-density urban centers were dangerous slums and should be torn down and the people in them moved to low-density suburbs. Jacobs showed that the households and shops in these urban villages were thriving, diverse, and healthy. Though they were dense, the people in the shops and housing above the shops kept "eyes on the street" to make sure they were safe.

Today, the saints and sages of planning have learned to celebrate Jacobs' dense urban villages, but now they want to turn all suburbs and towns into high-density, mixed-use urban villages like the ones Jacobs described. "All development should be in the form of compact, walkable neighborhoods," says the Congress for the New Urbanism. Existing neighborhoods "should be reconfigured," continues the group, into similarly compact, "diverse districts."

There appears to be a case of false identification occurring here. As a rule (perhaps universally), all "high-density, mixed-use urban villages like the ones Jacobs described" are indeed "compact, walkable neighborhoods". That said, the two things are not identical; rather, the former is a subset of the latter. It is certainly not true that all "compact, walkable neighborhoods" are "high-density, mixed-use urban villages"; indeed, the traditional US "small town" is essentially a single "compact, walkable neighborhood", and is quite plainly not an "urban village" of any kind.

Jacobs never meant her description of urban villages to be turned into a prescription for small towns or suburbs. "I hope no reader will try to transfer my observations into guides as to what goes on in towns, or little cities, or in suburbs which still are suburban," she wrote. "Towns, suburbs and even little cities are totally different organisms from great cities." In fact, only a handful of U.S. cities -- namely New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco, and Washington, DC -- really qualify as great cities as Jacobs used the term.

Which is all well and good, but entirely beside the point, absent some indication that there is some plan to turn small towns and suburbs into urban villages. And such evidence is wholly lacking, apart from O'Toole's attempt to misrepresent the position of The Congress for the New Urbanism (as noted above).

Strip Developments and Residential Areas

Strip developments never exist in isolation. Instead, they are typically surrounded by low- to moderate-density housing. The commercial development itself is typically just 200- to 400-feet deep. Behind the businesses is often a narrow band of apartments, which separate the commercial area from neighborhoods of single-family homes.

It is unclear how to read this claim. On the one hand, it is certainly true that "Strip developments never exist in isolation." After all, they are always surrounded by something. But such is a universal characteristic: everything is surrounded by other things. A lone house in the wilderness is surrounded by wilderness.

On the other hand, it is not true that "Strip developments never exist in isolation..." from urban development. One can find strip developments along highway exits, surrounded by nothing more than farmland, and at some distance even from the nearest small town.

On the third hand, perhaps the point is that "Strip developments [in urban areas] never exist in isolation..." from urban development. But, again, such is universally true of development in urban areas.

In short, the statement is either vacuous and unenlightening, or false.

Unlike the residents of the urban villages described by Jacobs, most of whom tended to be in one or two ethnic groups and many of whom were members of a few extended families, the people in suburban neighborhoods tend to come from diverse backgrounds and interests. So their families and friends probably aren't their neighbors. This is a major reason why the people in these suburbs prefer private, quiet streets over the noisy, public streets found in urban villages. Noise from family and friends can be welcome; noise from unknown sources can be threatening.

Let us assume for the sake of argument that the unsupported assertions in the first sentence are in fact true; how do the claims of the rest of the paragraph follow therefrom? There is not any immediately obvious correlation between family and friends living elsewhere and a preference for "private, quiet streets"; indeed the very idea that one would prefer that one's "private" space be filled with strangers seems perverse on its face. Additionally, a false dichotomy is implied: one's neighbors may be less that family or close friends, but that hardly entails that they must be "unknown".

Today, many planners argue that suburbs force people to drive. In fact, the reverse is true: the automobile enabled more people than ever to live in the suburbs. Owning a car meant that it didn't matter if families and friends were on the other side of town because you could easily reach them in a few minutes.

There are two problems here. First, the second sentence is not "the reverse" of the first in any meaningful way. Though not identical, "having A enables one to do X" and "A is required to do X" are entirely compatible with each other. It is true that "having a motor vehicle enables one to drive on Interstate Highways." It is also true (with a very small number of exceptions) that "if you want to drive on Interstate Highways you must have a motor vehicle."

Second, the latter claim is explicitly stated as a claim about the past, while the first is a statement about the present. O'Toole himself changes his verb tense from the first to the second sentence.

Additionally, the last sentence is pure nonsense. Even absent traffic congestion, one cannot drive from one side to the other of even a small city in "a few minutes". It will take significantly more than "a few minutes" to travel from Gresham to Beaverton (suburbs on the east and west sides of Portland, Oregon), even under ideal driving conditions. Indeed, on cannot drive even from the east side of Urbana to the west side of Champaign in "a few minutes" (and the Champaign-Urbana metropolitan area, referenced by O'Toole below, is significantly smaller than the Portland metroplitan area).

Owning a car also meant that it didn't matter whether a grocery store was a few steps away from home because you could easily reach stores, services, and jobs in a few minutes. Owning a car actually enhanced the value of having a large lot in a low-density suburb, because low-density areas have less traffic congestion than high-density ones.

Interestingly, this paragraph seems to support the very idea to which O'Toole claims to be arguing "the reverse". It seems reasonable to think that "Owning a car actually enhanced the value of having a large lot in a low- density suburb," but this is effectively equivalent to the statement that not owning a car diminishes the value of the same thing, due to the fact that, without a car, one cannot "easily reach stores, services, and jobs." Which in turn, suggests that, in practice, "suburbs force people to drive."

The best way to reach family, friends, stores, jobs, or other destinations was to drive on an arterial designed for high-speed auto traffic. Cities began widening streets to turn them into such arterials in the 1920s. Illinois historians John Jakle and Keith Sculle describe what happened to such a street, University Avenue, connecting Champaign and Urbana, Illinois (as described in chapter 8 of their book, "The Gas Station in America," Johns Hopkins Press).

[details deleted]

Meanwhile, the number of businesses on University Avenue grew from 9 in 1919 to nearly 100 in 1979. The number declined to 73 in 1989 because some businesses grew larger while smaller ones such as gas stations moved to other areas.

It is not at all clear what this digression is supposed to indicate, other than that, when a particular street changes from a peripheral street the edge of town to a major central arterial, businesses will begin to predominate. This is hardly unique or interesting; indeed, even in old large cities, one finds businesses concentrated along the main arterials.

Additionally, one may note that there is nothing in the above that has any immediately obvious relation to "strip development". Indeed, there is nothing even to indicate whether or not the development of University Avenue referenced above would appropriately be described as "strip development". [From my personal recollection, some parts of University Avenue would be appropriately so described, while other parts would not.]

Thus, it would at least appear that this "reference" is nothing more than an attempt to bamboozle the reader: "ahh, he has charts and figures; he must be saying something important!" Unfortunately, the charts and figures seem to have no connection whatsoever to the thesis under discussion.

This pattern is typical of major arterials. Residents prefer not to live with the noise and traffic, so they move away. The few residences left behind are mainly rentals. But stores, restaurants, and auto service stations did want to be on such arterials where they could be visible to large numbers of potential customers. This leads naturally to a strip development.

The final sentence would seem to require some form of evidence in support of it, given that there are large numbers of arterial streets with a significant commercial presence that do not take the form of "strip development". Indeed, the very existence of such arterials would seem to prove the claim false.

Planners often blame strip developments on past zoning practices that mandated a separation of uses. In fact, you will find strip developments in cities that have no zoning; zoning that reinforces strip developments merely reflects the preferences of homeowners and businesses.

Strip Developments and Transportation

To understand strip developments, let's scrutinize one in the same kind of detail that Jacobs applied to urban villages. I'll use one I am familiar with, McLoughlin Boulevard, which parallels the Willamette River south of Portland.

Unfortunately, the majority of this section has absolutely nothing to do with "strip development", per se. O'Toole presents an impressive-looking list, including a table of figures, but nothing whatsoever to link the presentation with strip development.

After all the data is presented, we can conclude that, when access to a road is limited, development along that road will also be limited. This is almost certainly true, but is also (to the best of my knowledge) wholly uncontroversial, and of no direct relevance to "strip development".

Again, the appearance is of an attempt to bamboozle the reader.

[review of McLaughlin Blvd. deleted]

The Oak Lodge-Gladstone segment of McLoughlin thus serves two purposes. First, it is a through highway, allowing people in Oregon City, Canby, and other points south to reach Portland and other points north. Second, it is a consumer paradise, giving local and regional residents access to hundreds of different businesses.

Strip Malls and Retailing

Well over 350 consumer-oriented businesses line this segment of McLoughlin (table three). Some serve the entire region, including sixteen new-car and twenty used-car dealerships. Some serve through traffic, including nearly three dozen fast-food stands. Others serve mainly local residents, including supermarkets, convenience stores, hardware stores, and multiplex cinemas.

Which is all very interesting, but not of any particular relevance to a discussion of "strip development" vs. some other sort. Strip developments do indeed include many retain businesses -- obviously, as they would not exist if they did not do so. Indeed, I cannot imagine anyone (whether they happen to be urban planners or not) arguing differently.

Strip developments do indeed provide access to many businesses. But the same is true of retail/commercial development that is not "strip development".

The "defense" of strip development presented here seems to be in the form: "yes, there are some problems with strip development, but look at all the good things about it". But such a "defense" is empty unless the supposed benefits are unique to strip development. And it is no "defense" at all if some other form provides equivalent benefits without equivalent costs.

[details of businesses deleted]

The supermarket, like the suburb, was enabled by the automobile. The first supermarkets emerged in the 1930s as low-cost alternatives to urban grocery stores. These early supermarkets saved money by locating on land that was nearly worthless, so they depended on cars to bring their customers to them.


I cite the history provided by King Cullen, generally cited as the "first supermarket":

  • It was there that Cullen leased a vacant garage on Jamaica Avenue in Queens, just a few blocks from a busy shopping district, and on August 4th, 1930 opened the doors to America's first supermarket, King Kullen Grocery Company.

Source: http://www.kingkullen.com/aboutus.asp

The first supermarkets emerged in the 1930's as low-cost urban alternatives to traditional groceries.

To be sure, with the development of suburbs, supermarkets moved with their customers. But even into the 1960s, suburban supermarkets were commonly located in the "downtown" areas of their suburb.

Since the 1930s, the principle story of supermarkets has been the enormous growth in the number of items they sell. The typical grocery store in 1930 sold less than 1,000 different items, while the average supermarket in 1955 sold 5,000 products. Today, 20,000 products is considered average and many supermarkets sell more than 50,000.

This sort of diversity is only possible in an automotive society. Even in the densest U.S. inner cities, the number of people within walking distance of a grocery store is insufficient to support this variety.

This claim appears from out of nowhere, and is utterly unsupported, if not in fact false.

Apart from the question of what "number of people" might be "[]sufficient to support this variety" -- number of products available need not and does not vary directly with number of customers, which means that the premise itself is incoherent -- contemporary supermarkets in dense urban areas (the largest part of whose customers arrive without using a private car) tend to have more or less the same selection and variety of products as do comparable suburban or exurban supermarkets (to which almost all customers arrive using a private car).

[details of businesses deleted]

At one hundred businesses per mile, I estimate McLoughlin businesses have an average density of 1.33 per acre. By comparison, Clackamas Town Center, a large suburban shopping mall, has 185 stores on 112 acres, or about 1.65 businesses per acre. Lloyd Center, an inner-city shopping mall, has the same number of businesses on only 23 acres, for nearly 8 businesses per acre. Lloyds uses multi-level parking to fit everything in a smaller space.

Here again we have a collection of figures, then a supposed "conclusion" that does not follow from the figures presented. There is no way to determine whether it is true that "Lloyds uses multi-level parking to fit everything in a smaller space" without data on parking (for example: number of parking spaces per square foot of retail space).

Is the strip a waste of land or is the low density justified by the convenience of driving right to the door of your store rather than walking halfway through a large shopping mall? One thing is certain: the range of businesses on McLoughlin is much wider than those at the major malls. While the strip has no upscale department or clothing stores, the malls don't provide many of the services needed by local residents from day to day.

This appears to be an example of a false dichotomy: "strip mall" or "shopping mall". Further, as the article is pretending to be a response to "New Urban" planners, the fact that such planners do not propose shopping malls as a replacement for strip development makes this supposed comparison wholly irrelevant.

Thus, a typical strip development offers a tremendous amount of consumer choice. This choice largely results from the competition that results when people are mobile enough to choose among retailers. In turn, this choice reduces consumer costs. When Wal-Mart begins selling groceries in a community, for example, the average price of groceries in that community falls by 13 percent.

It is no doubt true that strip developments offer consumer choice. But, as noted above in relation to retail businesses, this is not a factor that is in any way unique to strip development. A walk down the average urban arterial will also present a range of consumer choices. Certainly competition is generally good for consumers, but there is nothing uniquely competitive about strip development.

Opposition to Strip Malls

Most of the anti-strip development prescriptions offered by planners would reduce this consumer choice. While the prescriptions may seem aesthetically appealing, they effectively reduce competition and increase consumer costs.

Many of these prescriptions are oriented around transportation and aim to discourage auto driving while they promote walking, cycling, and transit. Planners want to turn six-lane McLoughlin Boulevard into a 4.5 lane street, deleting the right-turn lanes and allowing only an intermittent left-turn lane. Anyone slowing to turn right into a supermarket parking lot will force everyone behind them to slow down. This will reduce the street's traffic flow capacity by a quarter to a third.

The claim is that prescriptions will "effectively reduce competition and increase consumer costs." The preceding paragraph is wholly irrelevant to that claim. There does not appear to be even a suggestion of how a lane reduction will either "reduce competition" or "increase consumer costs".

In areas that have not yet turned to strip developments, one proposal suggested by many planners is to allow commercial developments only at major intersections. "A better idea would have been to create retail clusters or nodes around major intersections, and allow some transitional uses like professional offices along the rest of the road," writes one planner. "Limiting both the depth and length of retail zones is crucial to preventing strip development." But the limited areas devoted to retailing under this scheme could never offer the variety, economy, or convenience of the strip development.

The last sentence here is a bare assertion, unsupported by even a hint of evidence or argument.

Another prescription is to ban big-box stores such as Wal-Marts and Home Depots. Metro, Portland's regional planning authority, tries to limit all future shopping centers to less than 80,000 square feet of space, which is half the size of a Wal-Mart supercenter -- which helps explain why there are none in Portland.

Rather than big-box stores and strip malls fronted by parking lots, planners want design codes to require more pedestrian-friendly "main streets," with stores fronting on the sidewalks, parking in the rear, and apartments upstairs. This leads to a very different mix of stores than is found on a strip development. Given the competitive disadvantage of hidden parking, stores on such main streets tend to become boutiques serving niche markets rather than sell general consumer goods.

The entirety of this paragraph is nothing more than a collection of bare assertions, unsupported by any evidence or even argument, and is contrary to observed facts. If one is to walk (or drive) down an urban arterial (not a strip development, but a "more pedestrian-friendly 'main street[]'"), one will find a similar wide mix of businesses, including fast food outlets, supermarkets, hardware stores, etc. Of course, one will likely find various businesses serving "niche markets", as well, but hardly exclusively so.

Asking consumers to give up strip developments in favor of boutiques is like asking peasants to give up bread in favor of cake. Being anti-strip mall is both anti-consumer and anti-business.

The conclusion here might be true, if the premise were true. Unfortunately, the premise is itself an extraordinary claim that conflicts with observed fact, and is unsupported by even a hint of evidence or argument. The reasonable conclusion, then, is that the final claim is false.

Finally, I note that the general impression of this article is one of bad faith, if not intellectual dishonesty. Note that there are facts, figures, and citations for those claims that are non-controversial (in some cases, wholly irrelevant to the thesis), while the claims that are controversial are either unreferenced or, in many cases, wholly unsupported by any evidence or even argument.


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