Big Box Stores are Points of Social Leverage. We Should Harness Them.

This week, Strong Towns' members and readers respond to the questions: Is it possible and/or worthwhile to retrofit suburbia, or would we be better off abandoning underused suburban spaces? How might we go about retrofitting big box stores for future use?

Here's Strong Towns member, Will Muessig's answer.

The Strong Towns analysis lives primarily at the intersection of architecture, economics, and public finance. From each of these perspectives, it's easy to spot the inherent weakness of big box stores, and game out any number of potential solutions.

Uncomfortably for many readers, the economics of big box stores reflect a compelling supply chain logic for businesses, as well as a broader competitive rationality in the face of public subsidies for car use and impervious free parking surfaces.

Their architecture tends to be cheap and alienating, with minimal synergy between nearby structures. Perhaps big box stores are the high-tech factories of tomorrow, churning out cool 3D-printed stuff. Perhaps their large, flat roofs and cavernous interiors will be ideal for productive solar and permaculture fish farm interfaces. Perhaps.

But uncomfortably for many readers, the economics of big box stores reflect a compelling supply chain logic for businesses, as well as a broader competitive rationality in the face of public subsidies for car use and impervious free parking surfaces. Overall regulatory and finance incentives favoring big businesses further entrench Big Box thinking in local development.

The public finance dilemma faced by local policymakers means that pushing tax-solvent land-use rules or feedback-driven infrastructure growth all but guarantees a divisive political firestorm. Often big box construction and concomitant policy rules are merely the path of least resistance for politicians hoping to maintain careers and spur immediate investment and employment growth.

Ultimately, the fate of big box stores is contingent. Their future depends crucially on decisions and facts about land-use, environmental taxes, technology, and population migration trends. The vitality or malaise of big box stores will closely track that of the suburban planning model overall. Specific stores will probably fail or thrive depending on the health and choices of the community within which they are embedded. 

So perhaps the key question is this: To what degree are Big Box stores, as institutions, independent drivers of social and economic change?

  1. Big box stores tend to be repositories of social capital. They are centers of employment, draw large volumes of local customers at high frequency, and form cherished norms and behavioral regularities.
  2. Big box stores tend to be politically and socially symbolic. These businesses have clout and power (in part based on the threat of exit), and form historically-significant relationships with local residents.
  3. Big box stores are architecturally significant by virtue of their size, despite often being aesthetically underwhelming.
Inside a food truck ( photo from Wikimedia )

Inside a food truck (photo from Wikimedia)

Regardless of the deep contextual factors that will largely determine the fate of any single big box store, I see these three special qualities as potentially useful fulcrums upon which social activism and collaborative power might be focused. As a start, here are a few examples for some popular policy issues:

Pilot new businesses

Land-use policy activists pushing small-plot ownership could demonstrate the non-threateningness of these changes by bringing tiny businesses or food trucks inside big box stores on a more permanent basis. Many grocers already do this with banks and healthcare firms, so moderate local action could plausibly open up these platforms to a wider set of local shopkeepers. Municipal buy-in could smooth regulatory and insurance skittishness.

Test Transportation Planning

Communities debating the merits of parking policy reform might field-test in a big box lot: get business buy-in to start charging for parking and use revenues to rebate shoppers who verify non-car mobility via Uber receipt, bus transfer, or registered home address (for walkers).

Gather Community Support

A 'community sustainability drive' could be promoted at a big box checkout counter, whereby funding and business commitments would be established to ensure the reclamation and demolition of an architecturally inflexible structure in the case of bankruptcy or flight. This 'living will' adaptation would essentially ensure against the risk of blight and parking crater community costs.

These ideas are rough, but they do illustrate the contingent and context-specific nature of most big box stores, and recognize the sources of value that are universally available for capture by committed political interests. Social capital, symbolism, and architectural significance can all be harnessed by advocates to gently push communities further towards fiscal sustainability and economic antifragility. Respecting the value of overlooked and much-maligned institutions like big box stores is, after all, at the heart of Strong Towns’ appeal.

(Top photo by Jay Reed)

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About the Author

Will Muessig is a data analyst in Atlanta, GA. He casually blogs about urbanism and other topics at Follow him on twitter at @UnityPolitics