Friday, October 21, 2011

Repairing Downtowns with Kennedy Lawson Smith

As we approach Halloween, I'm reminded that there are few things spookier than a dead mall. My family's got one in their town. I have memories of that place bustling with colors and activity when I was a kid - the shop with ridiculously large decorated cookies on display, PacSun with its racks of sunglasses so incongruous with cloudy Michigan winters, the JC Penny my mom shopped at religiously.

When they opened a new, glitzier mall about eight miles away, our own mall contracted a terminal disease. Retailers pulled out, more desperate, shabby looking ones moved in (for a time), and then owners started shutting the lights off. Walking from one remaining department store to the next gave you the heebie jeebies. Now, it's essentially empty. Huge empty buildings surrounded by huge empty parking lots:

The vacant behemoth formerly known as Summit Place
This kind of thing has happened all over the country, of course. At the last DC EcoWomen event, they hosted a downtown revitalization expert named Kennedy Lawson Smith who's trying to reverse the poor planning decisions of the last few decades that's seen US retail space balloon to a whopping and unnecessary 40 sq ft per person (the global average, by contrast, is 4 sq ft). "We are way way way overbuilt," she said. She came armed with some of the most entertaining PowerPoint slides I've seen. Here's her take on where things started going wrong:


And here's a discussion about where planning and environmental sustainability intersect. She mentions that the carpenters who built Christ Church in Oxford planted oak seedlings from the trees they'd cut down so that future generations would be able to harvest them when the building needed repairs centuries later. "Now that's long range planning":

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