Student blog of the Stanford University Urban Studies Department

Amy Tomasso: An exploration of urban big box retail, Part 2


Previously, I asked whether any mediation can be found between the perverse physicality of big box retail and consumer values which demand its existence in both urban and suburban environments.  While I am not in favor of big box retail and would ideally like to see it phased out of modern society, this is not a realistic expectation.  The next best thing is to try to adapt these commercial meccas to be more amenable to consumers and more geared to the neighborhood scale. 

How would such an adaptation look?  The New York Times has published multiple articles which chronicle New York-specific improvements to downtown big box design, but the principles can be applied at a larger scale to cities everywhere.  One suggestion is to downgrade the size of big box stores, which necessitates a revamping of the internal business model.  If these companies insist on a downtown presence, they would have to limit merchandise available at these locations.  Thus, a downtown Wal-Mart would be somewhat like a mini-me of its regular sized suburban parent. 

In order to downsize, big box stores would need to first readjust their outlook from insistence on quantity, to provision of only the most necessary products.  For example, a toothbrush display at Costco would offer only one or two brands instead of the current overwhelming plethora of options.  The accumulation of all these reductions would yield a net decrease in floor space.

The two other options which were reviewed are drastically different but both offer a better alternative than the current single-story, architecturally bland state of big box.  The first is to build up.  Placing big box stores in multi-level buildings increases density and is preferable to structures which eat up whole city blocks with little visual diversity.  While I’m skeptical of the American flag steel wrap design put forth by the designers for one such structure, I think this model has its focus in the right place—reduction of sprawl.

Finally, the second model is most in-line with traditional neighborhood and mixed-used design.  This model seeks to retrofit vacant multi-story downtown buildings by placing shopping areas on the ground floor and office space above.  Windows which look in on store activity or interesting display cases woo shoppers more than the impassable concrete walls of most big box stores. 

These are thought-provoking improvements to current big box retail models, but in addition to these physical re-examinations, perhaps a larger revaluation must be made of consumer values at large.  If big box retail is potentially destructive to the physical designs of traditional urban downtowns, why do consumers continue to support these stores and create market demand for them?  Do we value material goods over the built environment?  This is an important question to ask before we continue to pollute our downtowns with big box retail. 


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