The growth of smart phones and other mobile computing devices, along with the general trend toward online shopping, may be slowly changing the shape of our cities, according to The New Republic:
The broader big box assault on the urban core—witness multi-story Targets and mixed-use Walmarts popping up in neighborhoods all over the country—has lots of reasons behind it. Primarily, mega-retailers have simply saturated suburban markets, and are looking to tap into America’s resurgent metropolitan wealth. But even if the more diversified companies aren’t as threatened as Staples by the obsolescence of whole product lines, the growth of online shopping allows them to stock only the items that people need to touch and feel before buying, or might need to pick up on the spur of the moment. The resulting smaller boxes can more easily be shoehorned into cities, where Supercenter-sized spaces are nearly impossible to find.
The more fundamental power of mobile computing, however, is reversing the trend that sent shoppers from Main Streets out to the interstates back in the 1960s: the rise of the personal automobile. A few weeks ago at a techie conference in San Francisco, Google Ventures’ Joe Kraus made a bold prediction. “In five to ten years, the smartphone will replace the car,” he pronounced, eliciting some quizzical looks.
Personal cars will become less necessary, he explained, as apps allow us to call cabs, hitch a ride, share bikes, navigate public transit, and get stuff delivered to our homes—or lockers in drugstores. On an even more profound cultural level, smartphones are also supplanting cars in the minds of young people as a rite of passage and the path to freedom.
Big box retailers, then, are just adapting to survive in the new normal. That’s terrified some small businesses, many of which have also suffered as their customers migrate online. But they needn’t be the mom-and-pop-destroying monsters of decades past. If cities demand decent design for those incoming superstores—with minimal surface parking, activated street fronts, and community gathering spaces—they’ll keep people from going to the suburbs to shop, and send more traffic to nearby businesses that offer something unique. (That’s the potential embodied by a handful of recession-stalled projects in Washington D.C.: Signing leases with Walmart allowed them to move forward, and other businesses will likely cluster where few before could survive.)