Wanted: Mom-and-Pop-Shop

At the Congress for New Urbanism in Salt Lake City a few years back, I found myself in a discussion with a handful of developers. They had been successful creating the residential part of the New Urbanist equation. There was clearly a demand for beautiful, compact, new homes in a charming neighbourhood. Where they expressed their challenge was the rest of the equation. They wanted a mixed-use neighbourhood node, but they couldn't find small businesses to fill the storefronts. In fact, often new entrepreneurs would be priced out of their neighbourhoods, and the only local labour supply would be the teenage children of residents who commuted to the city centre for work.

Sure enough, I had read about this same phenomenon in a research paper (Grant, J. & Perrott, K., 2011) years earlier while studying and writing about suburban retrofits. Ever since, there has been an asterisk on my thinking, reminding me that you can't design in small, local business. If you want something more loveable than chain stores, it takes more than than a masterplan.

Found: Mom-and-Pop Shops

This is my second year working on that puzzle. I've explained before that I spend my days as the designer and coordinator for a business accelerator program, based out of our provincial university. It is a great privilege for me to have been able to shape and grow this program. In a nutshell, we provide funding (including living expenses) and coaching for talented people who want to turn their skills into a business. Being a city builder, this has been an amazing opportunity to work side by side with the people who fill storefronts, hire local people, open workshops and factories, and change cities through their presence.

Our two flagship programs, soon to be available to international applicants.

Our two flagship programs, soon to be available to international applicants.

This week has been uplifting and exciting for me because our applicants for this summer are finally in, and we are now selecting our new cohort for the program. I've spent the past few months talking to 50 potential applicants about their ambitions to start a business and the past few days reviewing written applications to that effect. This summer, I will be once again be working with a team of entrepreneurs and designers to help a handful of these businesses get on their feet.

I want to share the experience of reading these applications because if there are this many wonderful people in my little city, there are surely some in yours.

Here's what we asked for:

From our Program page at http://summerinst.ca

From our Program page at http://summerinst.ca

We allude to the idea that we're looking for good people: "Big, positive impact." But we steer clear of buzzwords or categories like social entrepreneurship, scalable, growth-oriented, etc. because we want to remain appealing to people who don't live in the jargon.

Here's a hint of what we got from about 40 people of widely different backgrounds and ages:

  • Multiple craftspeople:
    • hoping to grow their business and hire others
    • protecting forests through sustainable wood harvesting
  • Multiple young people from engineer backgrounds dedicated to:
    • transforming our transportation system, and helping their neighbours find an affordable, low-carbon commute
    • transforming our energy system to get off coal
    • transforming our built environment to become more energy efficient
  • Multiple artists:
    • creating wearable pieces that contribute to confidence and positive mental health
    • striving to help other artists get paid for their work
    • recycling materials into stories and a second life
  • And a dozen or so others:
    • starting a microbrewery
    • turning lawns into farms and vacant lots into aquaponics operations
    • creating healthy snack foods
    • supporting new immigrants
    • helping people wrought with anxiety or stress get to sleep

So many people want to do good things. That's all I wanted to communicate today - that there are people surrounding us that want to be doing good things, full-time.

Another day, I'll talk about all the barriers to that ambition, but sometimes we just need to be reminded that there are a lot of good neighbours out there. I hope you find yours.

Will keep you posted on our final selections for the program and our progress over then next several months!

GRACEN JOHNSON is a communications designer living in The Maritimes. While she finished her MPhil in Planning, Growth, and Regeneration in 2013, she has never stopped studying the city. Gracen thinks of her day-to-day as participatory action research, diving into the question of how Strong Citizenship can transform a city. She wears many hats trying to crack that nut herself, including as the designer and coordinator of an accelerator for small businesses that build community. She also freelances around the vision of "Projects for Places we Love" and has a video blog called Another Place for Me.