We Need More Charming, People-Centered Places

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One of our favorite stories here at Strong Towns are these low-cost pop-up shops in Muskegon, Michigan. Six years ago, the city took one small step towards creating feasible options for entrepreneurs and it grew rapidly. Taking inspiration from the farmer’s market, Muskegon decided to use a similar small-scale approach to create more long-term opportunities for local businesses. 

“The city hired a builder to manage the construction of 12 wooden buildings ranging from 90 to 150 square feet at a cost of just $5,000–6,000 per chalet. Their simple design—a portable wooden structure with windows and doors (but no running water)—kept them very affordable. In May 2017, these buildings opened for business—filled with clothes, gifts, crafts, and food.”

A people-centered place was quickly established as business owners flooded in and people came to explore. To this day, businesses are still utilizing the small-store incubators to grow and maintain their business. 

Akron, Ohio, tackled their downtown space by providing a market-style venue for start-ups. Unlike a mall, where businesses need to rent an entire little store, some of these vendors can rent a space the size of a table to host their business. The best part that vendors compliment the Northside Marketplace on is they don’t even have to be present to sell their items, thanks to a central check-out. The flexibility of this option is perfect for start-ups, letting them incrementally grow their business without having to quit their full-time job to dedicate time in opening a traditional storefront before the business has a solid, established base. 

One of my favorite options for creating more walkable, people-centered places is legacy shops, which can be more than a concentrated downtown marketplace. Legacy shops used to be sprinkled throughout residential neighborhoods, as well as being great downtown spots. Before America became a car-centric country, towns thrived on these simple two- and three-story, mixed-use, commercial buildings. But now, unfortunately, these spaces are illegal in most places while suburban-style zoning codes dominate the way our communities function. Buffalo, New York, started to re-invest in these local magical places with the first step of changing parking regulations. Old legacy shops that had once been boarded up could then reopen without having to tear down homes to build unnecessarily large parking lots. 

Seeing stories of towns dropping zoning codes and investing in incremental options for start-ups truly bolsters my spirits. We’ve lived through the suburban experiment and we can see how damaging it’s been to the uniqueness and charm of our downtowns and small businesses.

Cars are a great thing, and they are very useful, so we shouldn’t give them up. But we also shouldn’t prioritize cars to the extent that we are sacrificing valuable, people-centered places and small businesses. I like driving my car, but I also like walking. It would be nice if we built all our towns, big or small, to have more balance between the necessity of a motor vehicle and a walkable habitat for locals and visitors.

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