This is the last of the reasonably well-developed pieces of the long thing on a new economic role for downtowns that I churned out on a couple of flights over the past couple of weeks. After this, the document goes more bit-and-pieces. Probably because we were landing somewhere.
You can find the five previous parts under the “Resilient Communities.” tag. I’m not sure when I’ll get back to this — I have two other things that I’m supposed to be writing, and this was not on the list — but I will at some point. In the meantime, I’ll be glad for your feedback.
Let’s talk about an Asset: Small Spaces
Who would view a small space as an asset?
We’re used to thinking of space –floor space, acreage — as a if-some-is-good-more-is-better kind of resource. New house sizes have more than doubled in the past 40 years, while our households get smaller. We assume that everyone needs to be able to get away from everyone else, everyone gets their own room, their own bathroom. We want “elbow room,” which often ends up being Rooms Between Our Elbows. In the western world, among people of even pretty modest means, we want to have more room than we absolutely need.
More room means more cost. More room means more space to clean, to repair, more stuff to buy to make it look not empty, More space to monitor to make sure no one is breaking in or doing something they shouldn’t.
More space to pay rent or mortgage on, more space to heat and light and air condition.
So if you’re a business, in a world where your competitors seem to multiply every day and pressure to hold your costs in check never lets us, Elbow Room increasingly looks like money misspent.
We’ve seen this in office work for decades. When I started my first planning job in a 1960s building, I had an office with real walls and a door that locked with a click and a wall of filing cabinets and two bookcases. And I was not anything special; everyone’s office looked like that. After a few years, we moved to a 1980s building with almost no closed-off spaces. My office was enclosed by five-foot tall cubicle walls, which surrounded a desk, two side tables, a bookcase and a couple of filing cabinets. A couple of years later we moved to a newer building, and soon walls and bookcases had been reduced to a glorifed computer-holding wall and a three-foot sort of cubby. And while I personally missed the privacy (writers have to concentrate sometimes), I could collaborate with my colleagues a little more easily and it turned out that I didn’t miss the additional stuff Today, many of my colleagues work in hotelling offices, their work contained in a laptop bag and cloud files and their office for any given day consisting of whatever chair and worktable the computer system tells them is avaiable when they walk into wherever they are today. Since everyone isn’t in the building at the same time, you don’t need a separate desk for each person, and there’s no point in heating and lighting a space that’s vacant half the time. As a result, office space per employeed and total office size per establishment has been dropping since the early 2000s.
Similarly, take a visit to the new workplaces of this century – co-working spaces, coffee shops, park benches on the plaza, spare bedrooms. Look at how much space each person working actually consumes, and compare that to those Mad Men – era offices I described in the last paragraph.
The same broad trend holds for many types of retailers. If you go to the Container Park in Downtown Las Vegas today (a sort of surrogate town center for a community whose downtown isn’t very traditional, constructed mostly of shipping containers), and you go up to the third level on the west side, you’ll find the Art Box. Art Box sells jewelry, accessories, glass work — little items. They are housed in a half of a shipping container – a space that’s about 15 feet deep. They carry, incredibly, works by about 40 Las Vegas area artisans and crafters — individuals, mostly with full-time gigs doing something else, who made items and sold them at a local market, since there was apparently no other store in town that would sell locally-made crafts.
In a 15X10X10 space, Art Box is pleasantly well-stocked, with interesting things hanging or sitting everywhere you look. In a larger space — say, the conventional downtown store, 30 or 40 feet wide and 100 feet deep or more — Art Box would look half-empty, depleted, dispiriting. It’s not like most of the artisans can make that much more stuff in their non-existent additional free time. Mix that negative first impression with three or more times higher costs in a bigger space, and it’s not likely that an experiment like Art Box could have gotten off the ground.
Meanwhile, from a local and national public policy standpoint, increasing the amount of entrepreneurship is quietly filtering to near the top of a lot of decision-maker’s priorities, especially as big corporations continue to cut jobs on a nearly-predictable basis and questions about whether jobs that require potentially automated work, like truck drivers, raises the specter of additional millions of people who cannot find employment. This spurs lots of investment in one-off initiatives, but like in many other areas of social change, the scattering of well-intentioned efforts can create small nearby ripples, but lacks the power to shift the direction of the tide.
In addition to entertainment and amenities and all those quality of life elements that we love but would survive without, I think that downtowns can be the natural incubator for small businesses-not just cute retail shops, but the things that will grow your local and regional economy in the future, creating not just local destinations, but products and services that create something genuinely new. That’s potentially retail, but it’s also tech, services, crafts, manufacturers. It’s the future economy that includes stuff we can’t yet name, like the smartphone in your pocket if you were trying to imagine it in 1995.
Downtown is the place in your community most likely to have the parts that entrepreneurship incubators need already in place. But you won’t get those benefits unless you manage and shepherd the district to help the community leverage those assets for the long-term benefit.