In the middle of this slowdown the nation is facing, leaders and their constituents should be focusing on the plans for this country’s future, and one of those new aims should be to refashion cities. As an architect, I care a lot about the buildings and streets we inhabit. Although, what I care about most isn’t the building – it’s what happens inside and around its walls, the stuff in between.
In this period of re-fashioning and re-envisioning, sometimes the most effective way towards real change with the ‘in between’ isn’t through engineering or architecture, its through government policy.
But that’s assuming that cities have the proper leadership in place, either in city hall or within the various chambers. For a much more direct effect, there are immediate grassroots options and simple acts that can help improve the financial situation of business owners and the cities coffers. Here are some statistics for you via Cinda Baxter and the 3/50 Project:
If just half the employed population spent $50 each month within independently owned businesses, their purchases would generate more than $42.6 billion in revenue¹.
For Every $100 spent within independently owned stores, $68 returns to the community through taxes, payroll, and other expenditures. If you spend that in a national chain, only $43 stays here. Spend it online and nothing comes home.
I started thinking about this for two reasons: New York City and my recent trip to Oklahoma City.
In New York City, each morning I ride to work and use the 9th Ave bike lane, passing the various bakery’s, cafes, laundry, etc. I feel that in the 3 years that I’ve been taking this route, the area has really began to change and develop into a neighborhood nicer than it was before. And the reason isn’t because of larger retail or restaurant chains moving in.
The area has continued to improve because it’s businesses are locally owned and the owners care about the stake that they share in the common storefront, sidewalk and services they offer. The money that I’ve spent at Billy’s or the handful of cafe’s that my wife and I frequent are put right back into that street – an example being the landscaping and the bike lane improvements the city has created. The people behind the counter and in the back office are the same ones we see at the nearby market. They each have a personal stake in the health of our local economy.
A $50.00 contribution to that health adds up pretty quick over a month … a cup of coffee, a meal out with the girl, a piece of art or clothing. That small contribution to a local business is what keeps the brick and mortar of our nation around and builds a stronger financial base for the cities we live in.
The second reason for this post is my recent trip to Oklahoma City. I’m not going to get into a comparison between NYC and OKC because you can’t. It’s apples and oranges and unfair to the individual advantages both provide.
I spent most of my time during this trip in the downtown neighborhoods (I refer to downtown as all the various neighborhoods: Bricktown, Deep Deuce, Auto Alley, etc) and most of that time I was equally shocked in good and bad ways.² The biggest ‘good’ by far was that downtown, it’s local. All of it.³
And that is the best thing that can happen for downtown Oklahoma City as it begins taking its first real steps towards becoming a viable neighborhood rather than just a ‘destination.’ My wife and I enjoyed the fact that we weren’t walking into a generic retail oriented development similar to what’s occurring around the nation. (do we really need another mall fashioned as a ‘town square?’)
We were in Oklahoma City. Rather than a conforming sameness, the restaurants were uniquely individual, local and entirely Oklahoman. I have to call out Sage and Bolero. If the city took a more active stance in encouraging more developments like these downtown, residents and the necessary density would follow. And this is where government policy comes in.
I believe that one of the smartest things any city could do right now is find creative ways to encourage existing small businesses to expand and entrepreneurs to hang their own signs on the storefront. Whether its taking advantage of the $15 billion that’s been used to open up credit, or helping forge partnerships between smaller, local banks.
Big national banks are much more likely to have been drawn into the mess of securitized loans and credit default swaps, forcing them to preserve capital. But, the smaller local banks have traditionally made their livings off of loans that they carry on their own balance sheets to individuals and small businesses. I guess I’m wondering out loud how can the city better facilitate the connections between the local banks and the local businesses?
It would be interesting to see an easy to use, effective and sustainable shop-front concept evolve that engages people with ideas, developers, local backers and the broader community. I saw lots of small, individual shops pop up in the city and I believe it’s a momentum that needs to be actively encouraged. (something that very might well be happening.) A smart city hall and chamber could make it a mission to ensure that it can attract and help launch as many of these ventures as possible.
- Emplolyment statistics courtesy U.S. Department of Labor/Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2/6/2009
- More of my thoughts will pop up in upcoming entries. I’m going to try and keep them tied into a larger discussion rather than a lengthy travelogue.
- I’m sure there are more national chains that I’m forgetting, but this was my impression rather than a rigorus survey. In Bricktown, I don’t count Sonic…it’s headquartered there, so you expect it. And aside from the IHOP and the obligatory Starbucks that reside on the outskirts, I find Bass Pro Shop to be a blight and an anomaly to any ‘downtown’ and refuse to acknowledge its existence. Personally, I think they need to relocate down to the river once Core2Shore and the re-alignment occurs.