Quantifying the death of the classic American main street

Giddings Plaza in Chicago was one of only 13 blocks among 46,311 in the city to possess every quality of a great main street. Andrew Seaman / Flickr

A Sidewalk Talk Q&A with urban scholar Emily Talen on why these streets are vanishing — and what cities can do about it.

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Emily Talen recalls exactly when she decided to analyze all 46,311 blocks in Chicago in search of the classic American “main street” — defined as a street that’s walkable, full of daily services, and supportive of mom-and-pop shops. She was reading a New Yorker piece about Jane Jacobs from September 2016. In it, Adam Gopnik wrote that small shopkeepers, so vital to the vibrant sidewalk interactions beloved by Jacobs, were “helpless in the face of new pressures” from chain stores and shifting economic forces.

“I thought: ‘That’s depressing!’ ” says Talen, a professor of urbanism at the University of Chicago. “What happens on main street is such an integral part of activating the neighborhood. Now we’ve lost that. My fear is that it’s been this long, slow decline, so that it becomes almost taken for granted, and increasingly you shrug your shoulders and say, well, that’s the way it is.”

To track main street’s decline in Chicago, Talen and collaborator Hyesun Jeong first settled on its eight core characteristics. As they define it, a classic main street features at least one daily service (such as a grocery store or daycare center) and one amenity (a bar, cafe, gym, etc). It’s primary mixed-use (meaning, one major employer) and should have more small businesses than chains. It needs at least one older building (pre-1950), as well as sidewalks and a sufficient sense of “enclosure” (measured as building height-to-street width ratio). Last, it can’t have any degrading visual factors (such as a parking lot or vacant building).

Their analysis, published in the Journal of Urban Design, found that only 13 streets in the entire city possessed all these traits. “Are we suddenly just going to wake up to cities that don’t have these things anymore?” Talen asks. “Are we ok with that?” She spoke to Sidewalk Talk about why main street is vanishing, what cities can do about it, and how better data can help track neighborhood change.

There seems to be an almost universal charm or a romance to main street. Why do you think people are so drawn to this type of street?

Because it’s a social space. Because it’s part of the public realm. It’s not the kind of public space, like a park or square or a plaza, where you just go to recreate or hang out. This is a public space that’s kind of part of your daily routine. Interacting with the world is written into the fold.

Streets are by far the largest quantity of public space that we have. Main street is what’s taking that piece of the street and making it a social space, a usable public space. Otherwise it’s just a traffic sewer with cars streaming by. Main street is that one part in the flow where you’re stopping and activating that space.

Your most striking finding is how few blocks satisfied all the main street qualities. Just 13 blocks out of something like 40,000. Why do you think that was the case, even in a major city like Chicago?

We were surprised, too. We set a pretty high bar. I think the requirement not to have chain stores, or to have just a few chain stores, killed it for a lot of the main streets. I have to admit, too, that a lot of those blocks are residential-only. They’re not going to have main street qualities to begin with. Even more blocks fell out of our categorization of main street because they had parking lots. They were compromised in terms of their pedestrian quality.

Some things like sidewalks, even width-to-height ratio — a lot of the blocks were fine with that. But when you put all these ingredients of main street together, as it’s been thought of, we just don’t have them.

What’s the reason for that? Does it go back to zoning ultimately?

It might go to zoning. A second paper we just finished — it’s still under review — is about what’s going on with the zoning for these main street. We found that the zoning wasn’t conducive to main street at all. It really ticked me off. This seems like something that’s fixable.

Basically, zoning is not supportive. Zoning allows big box developers. You can have big parking lots in front. There’s nothing that tries to hold the character in place. A lot of the zoning is called C-1, for example, which is specifically for auto-oriented commercial strip malls. A lot of our main streets fell into that. The main streets were probably there first, and the zoning came along second, but you’re thinking: Why isn’t the zoning there more supportive? That’s definitely a problem.

And the e-commerce thing is killing small retailers. That’s a huge loss for the quality of our cities.

On that — one of the big findings here is that chain stores have an outsized presence on potential main streets and end up crowding out small businesses. How does this trend impact local opportunity and the ability to address local needs? Do people end up with main streets that don’t function as well in terms of services?

I think that’s the concern, and that’s certainly what Jane Jacobs was talking about. This local ownership idea is about circulating dollars locally. Also the owners would know you and know their neighborhood and know their clientele and be responsive to them. Chains are not going to be as keyed into this local nuance.

I will say another thing about chains: it gets complex. I was just at a historic preservation conference where it was pointed out to me that some of these chain stores have saved historic buildings, and those historic buildings in turn are very important for the neighborhood and for pedestrian quality. That’s one complexity: maybe chains aren’t always so evil. They can have some benefits.

But I just feel like when you walk into any chain, the manager or owner, they have an interest in serving their corporations and ultimately their shareholders. You go into a locally owned business and it’s just different. They want to know you. It sounds a little schmaltzy, but I think it is important.

You note that urbanists could be more proactive in clarifying for policymakers the challenges that face main streets. What do you see as the ways to fight back, or the primary challenges here?

First of all, I’d like to see more listening to what the retailers need. Are regulations hurting them? Is something the city’s doing about parking requirements hurting them? It’s my sense looking at the literature out there that there hasn’t been enough listening to what the local independent retailer needs. That’s the first thing.

Then I think there are some policies that cities could be more proactive about. Everything from grants and tax incentives to loosening up regulations that are burdening them ought to be considered. I think cities could help with enabling neighborhoods to band together to support their local businesses. You hear about things like a neighborhood decided that it really needed a laundromat, so they banded together and formed a co-op to open a laundromat on their local main street. That is a Herculean effort. The city could support that kind of effort.

I think co-ops are a very interesting model. I know that goes against some American principles of free market enterprise, but maybe the co-ops could be seen as a way of anchoring or supporting other purely market-based retailers going in around them. In other words, seeing these small retailers along main street as more of a community anchor, an imperative. Right now it’s not looked at like that at all. There is more emphasis on needing a park or a playground. Retailers are not looked at as part of the supporting fabric of neighborhoods. I just think there’s lots of benefits to be gained by having that activated, locally-based main street.

Are there places that are finding ways to save main street, or policies that have been effective?

San Francisco has such an interesting policy about legacy retailers. Often it’s San Francisco I go to for innovative policy. They actually identified the small, longstanding mom-and-pops. They were old restaurants, old hardware stores, old corner grocery stores. They picked them out and they have a program that, if you get identified as one of these legacy businesses, you get support. I think it’s in the form of tax breaks. It might even be subsidy of some sort. It’s really recognizing that these are part of the neighborhood fabric and if we lose these mom-and-pops in these key places, that has really devastating effects. That is very unique.

There’s also something called participatory budgeting. That’s been tried, rarely, in Chicago. The city might give a neighborhood group $100,000 to figure out how to spend. What if neighborhoods spent their allotment to activate main street and support local retailers? Rather than: let’s fix up a park. That’s always the go-to. I’d rather have activated public space rather than passive, recreational public space. We need that, of course! But let’s also think about activating our main streets and supporting them.

The presence of a surface parking lot would keep a corner like Balbo and Wabash (shown here) from being a classic main street. Parking requirements can also undermine the ability of small businesses to move onto — or expand on—a given block. asrai / Flickr

If you had to rethink zoning codes to encourage development that creates a great main street, how would you do that? Is it as simple as allowing mixed-use or do you have to be more prescriptive?

I think you do need to require certain things about maintaining the pedestrian quality. For example, you need a certain percentage of actual transparency in windows. This is another thing that drives me nuts: There are buildings with great big windows, which are so important for pedestrian quality, and they’re covered up! It’s just posters or something completely blocking the window. That completely undermines the idea, which is to be able to look inside a building and see that there’s life going on — that conversation between in and out.

The other thing is to completely eliminate the parking requirement. That is often mentioned by retailers as, “Oh, I can’t expand my business. I need to be able to expand into this next building here, but I can’t do it because I can’t meet the off-street parking needs.” I would get rid of that. Then also allowing housing within these commercial spaces. It is usually allowed, but there again you have the parking requirement. Ok, you can have housing there, but you need to have a parking space per unit. If you would get rid of that, that would be very helpful, and that seems like a simple thing.

There’s all these hidden rules and regulations in there that need to be completely overhauled if you put on the lens of “we’re trying to support main street” and you look at these codes through that lens. I think you’d get a very different kind of zoning.

You noted this study was only possible with new access to geospatial data. To what extent is the lack of data on the urban environment holding back our understanding of urban design and characteristics of great streets?

I’ll say it’s come a long way. But the more you get into it, the more you realize there are basic things we don’t have. Like age of building. That’s incomplete or the data is not consistent. That’s a problem. We had a really hard time with street-width data. We had to do this whole sampling thing. That was not ideal. Sidewalk width is not available. Whether or not there are street trees is not available. The form of the building, in terms of fenestration (the window coverage) is not available. There’s all kinds of things about built form that are not available in any kind of large data way.

Having said that, having been in this business a long time, I do have the perspective of how much better it’s gotten. I don’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth, but we need to do better.

Of the 13 full main street blocks, all but one were in a wealthy area. How do we make sure that the benefits of strong mixed-use have an equitable impact on the city?

That’s the big question. These qualities are loved by people. And people are loving them to death and ultimately pricing everyone else out of it. To me the answer is: grow the supply. If we look at where there’s some set of these qualities all around the city, and we use those as anchors to grow more of this fabric, and we get some small businesses in there, and we help the small businesses that already are there survive — I think we can grow our supply of main street so that it’s not all concentrated in a few neighborhoods.

Many efforts that have to do with growing the employment in troubled neighborhoods, they don’t think at all about main street qualities. They just plop an industry in the middle of a cornfield. The emphasis on “small business” is not really connected to “main street.” I looked a lot at the various programs out there to help small business startups, and they’re completely separated from the main street idea. I don’t know how to get these two worlds better connected, but to me the investment in small business should have the dual purpose of activating a main street.

This Sidewalk Talk Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

March 19, 2018