Redesign (retail)

Transforming existing neighbourhoods for food access

Redesigning urban areas, suburbs and neighbourhoods is an enormously complex topic and undertaking, about which much has been written (see, for example, the journal Built Environment, Towards Sustainable Suburbs, 32(3), 2006; and the work of Roger Keil at York University).  Particularly challenging are communities built around the automobile and for food, the neighbourhood with the  one stop weekly stock up grocery store model.  The agrihoods discussion (see Substitution) and to some extent urban renewal / revitalization projects reveal ways to build anew, but transitioning a built environment that isn't obviously ready for a tear down is a different challenge. Another way to describe it is: how do we food retrofit a neighbourhood functioning on an old model of food access? And how long might it take to see such an extensive area of retrofits that they produce population level changes in consumption?

As highlighted in other sections, urban and regional planners, even if they wanted to undertake a food retrofit, do not currently have much authority to specify what kinds of food retail, food projects and food growing can occupy what spaces. By the redesign stage, these authorities will have increased, although the constitutional limitations of Canadian governance will still impose constraints.

One of the entry ways to food retrofit in established neighbourhoods is tying it to other redevelopment processes such as transit oriented development (TOD). The concept has been around for awhile (see maps and design concepts by leading TOD designer Peter Calthorpe, Reconnecting America, and the US TOD database), and food has always been somewhat a part of TOD thinking, though not necessarily access to healthy, affordable food.  In many communities, the possibilities for TOD can still be limited, in part because of the commitment to cars and low density environments (cf. Quinn, 2006).  This is why the concept falls in the redesign category.

The TOD concept is simple: moderate and high-density housing, along with complementary public uses, jobs, retail and services, are concentrated in mixed-use developments at strategic points along the regional transit system…employment opportunities, conveniences, and household savings from reduced transportation costs are combined in a “walkable” environment…TODs seek to bring many destinations within walking distance, allowing trips to be combined.(Chandler, 2004)

And .....

A TOD entails the upgrading or development of businesses in the community’s center, near public transportation. These are usually convenience retail or service businesses primarily catering to the denser population within walking distance of the TOD\community center and to commuters. Because the placement of these businesses is highly convenient for their target customer base, they tend to capture and circulate wealth within the community. Frequently businesses within TODs are small and can be locally owned. Besides offering opportunities for some families to reach a new level of wealth through business ownership, these enterprises create some local employment for entry level and skilled workers. A 1999 study for Metra, states the rail station communities in the Chicago region had an advantage over “non-rail communities” by “generating groups of customers and unique development opportunities” resulting in an average commuter expenditure of $20-$30 per week at station-area stores. This increase in sales volumes can then “provide additional local employment opportunities”. (METRA, Camiros and Valerie S. Kretchmer Associates, n.d.)

There is some evidence that food is a bigger draw than services in TOD.  For example, an evaluation of the Oakland Bay Area’s BART, concluded that restaurants and food stores were more likely to capture BART patrons than service businesses (Landis and Cervero, 1999).

The TOD would have to have certain characteristics, however, to make it viable for food retrofit (cf. Calgary and Edmonton TOD guidelines; Reconnecting America; and personal communication, Oregon planner).

  • For walkable TOD, a half-mile radius offers a good indication of the socioeconomic characteristics that exist within walking distance of any particular station.
  • Urban design guidelines should create a sense of place at station locations, with attractive and functional streetscapes, and improve pedestrian connectivity in the vicinity of stations;
  • Residential density is key to creating nearby demand for food stores and reducing auto dependency.
  • Re: parking, the best formula seems to be high-density mixed use that allows for shared parking arrangements in underground or structured parking.
  • development transit streets must be oriented toward the sidewalk with no parking between the building and the street. This has resulted in some very community-friendly grocery stores - both natural food stores and chain stores.

An ideal scenario emerges from all this. Transit users come off the trains or buses and have the opportunity to pass by small retail outlets, restaurants (with outdoor seating) and markets to purchase healthy food – green grocers, bakeries, butchers/fish shops, healthy prepared meals – before transferring to another transit mode, walking to their car or walking to their house. Personal care and support workers may often be able to shop on the way to a patient's home. In so doing, they reduce the number of shopping trips involving cars and reduce consumption of less nourishing convenience food.  With an emphasis on local sourcing, such markets provide new opportunities for enhancing the health of the region’s rural areas.

Another entry way is dead mall retrofitting. There have been a number of retrofit projects at dead mall sites in the US, essentially single land parcels for redevelopment. Restaurants and grocery are often critical to such redevelopment, particularly if walkability is a key component (Leinberger, 2009). The fundamental retrofit problem is that governments cannot tear down existing inhabited houses to create connectivity and multiple uses, unless buildings are in bad shape or expropriation is warranted for larger purposes.  A further challenge  is maintaining affordability as demand for such areas grows.  Inclusionary and permissible granny flat zoning helps assure a certain percentage of affordable units in new developments (Leinberger, 2009). Key policy/programme/regulatory elements of the transition to walkable spaces include: changing land use regulations (mixed use, less parking, form-based codes, standards that assure walkability, faster approvals for properly designed proposals), educating the financing community about the merits and value (projects are typically 20-40% more costly, so slower returns on equity), eliminating subsidies to driveable suburbs (increase fees for low density vs. high density projects to account for the real higher costs of servicing them),  managing new businesses on the ground to assure proper diversity (developers tend to do what they know already) (Leinberger, 2009).

Changing the legal status of the corporation

The legal status corporations partly explains the problems of concentrated food retail.  For more on addressing this, see Goal 3, Reducing Corporate Concentration, Redesign

Price setting and ecological economics

The way our current economic system values food is also a key contributor to our current problems.  For more on the shift to an ecological approach to economics, see Goal 3, Reducing Corporate Concentration, Redesign.  As discussed in Substitution, and as part of the transition to ecological economics, there will likely be the need for price setting (see Goal 2, Demand - Supply Coordination, Redesign, Price Setting).