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Shop and Awe: The Peril of American-Style Commercial Development for Europe

Note: This essay appears in the "Council Report V," which contains a wealth of additional material on European urbanism, profiles of European projects, and American perspectives. Click here for more information, or download the order form.

This essay grew out of the rich exchanges I enjoyed with Europeans at both the first EuroCouncil in Belgium in April 2003 and during a series of presentations I made in Stockholm, Sweden, at the "City Streets, Main Streets and Meeting Places" conference sponsored by the Urban City Research Ax:son Johnsonstiftelsen Foundation in Stockholm, Sweden, in June 2003.

In April, when I was invited to speak on the new town centers and main streets being built in the United States and Canada at the EuroCouncil, I was at once excited and anxious. The explosion of development involving pedestrian-oriented main streets and town centers in American suburbs, edge cities and low-density urban areas has been one of the most promising anti-sprawl trends of the past decade. In the United States, where over half the population resides in suburbs, and where large portions of our metropolitan cities are composed of low-density, single-use, automobile-oriented development, the emergence of mixed-use, pedestrian-oriented town centers has been nothing short of an epiphany. For all the excitement these projects have generated in the United States, however, they are pale shadows of the urban centers of historic towns and cities in the United States and Europe. What could our nascent efforts to build town centers possibly teach Europeans? The answer, as it turned out, was that the United States has much to teach Europe.

During the opening sessions in the historic section of Brussels and the extraordinary medieval town of Bruges I listened attentively to presenters from throughout Europe. Several things became clear that revealed how important it is for Europeans to pause and take a long, hard look at the American experience and consider the devastating impact that laissez-faire commercial sprawl would have on European metropolitan landscapes and the European way of life.


Demolition of historic residences, Brussels, 2003

Slab-urbs: aerial view

Slab-urbs: the pedestrian's view

First, the classic European town centers, market squares, piazzas and high streets Europeans prize and Americans flock to each year have not been models for new development in Europe for a very long time. The slab-urbs, modernist new towns, spread of single-use, monofunctional, car-dominated development, and the host development issues documented in the CEU Charter reveal the extent to which European development patterns have departed from the traditional European city over the past six decades.

Second, while the pattern of new development in Europe has long been sub-urban in character, long-held policies aimed at protecting the integrity of historic town centers and high streets have gradually been relaxed and, in some cases, removed for periods of time, allowing for the rapid introduction of big box retailers and out-of-town shopping centres that have begun to echo the path of destruction that occurred in America.

The relaxation of retail policy in Britain produced an outcry from shopkeepers, elected officials and residents of historic towns and cities damaged by out-of-town competition. This led to a number of important policy papers and texts including Urban Villages (1992), published by the Urban Villages Group, and the UK Department of Environment's Vital and Viable Town Centres: Meeting the Challenge (1994). U.S.-style commercial development has made significant inroads in the United Kingdom and much of mainland Europe, and has come to dominate new commercial development in Scandinavian nations.

Third, the examples of new urban European development presented at the Council revealed that the lingering self-consciousness and discomfort with traditional architectural style was leading to neglect of basic features of traditional building types. The typology of traditional buildings embodies timeless elements of storefront design and frontages that define urban retail streets and accommodate the convivial marketplace. As the CNU Charter states, such issues "transcend style."

Historic Stockholm

Historic Stockholm: street-level perspective

"New downtown" of Stockholm

Along with these warning signs is the knowledge Americans have gleaned in doing battle with commercial sprawl over the past two decades and through the modest successes we have enjoyed in reintroducing the possibility of pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use town centers.


The lesson from America begins and ends with a warning: Conventional suburban retail formats that constitute a major portion of sprawl in the United States represent a voracious virus that, once introduced into the European fabric, will rend it and eviscerate the small scale, high-service shopkeepers that have been a cornerstone of European social and cultural life for ages. A recent article on the rapid decline of small shops in Italy captured the "shop and awe" impact of American-style supermarkets:

"The number of supermarkets has surged 74 percent, from 3,696 in 1996 to 6,413 in 2000, says Confcommercio, an Italian business lobby. In the decade through 2001, the number of small food shops slumped 24 percent, from roughly 254,000 to 193,000, said Confesercenti, a small businesses lobby."(2)

Europeans need to look at the devastation, waste and placelessness of retail sprawl that has swept across the American landscape. American real estate development has refined highly successful freestanding retail formats including: gas station/food marts; drive-through fast food restaurants, banks, liquor stores, and even espresso "cafes"; larger formats that dominate retail trade including neighborhood- and community-scale shopping centers, regional and super-regional shopping malls, factory outlets, and power centers anchored by big box discount stores; and new formats that continue to assimilate competitors and morph into pseudo-urban settings including lifestyle centers, urban entertainment centers and shopping malls attached to retail-only "main streets." All of these retail formats represent "machines for shopping": single-use pods, disconnected from residential neighborhoods and the larger community.

While American consumers have enjoyed an extremely wide variety of goods at competitive prices, these benefits have come at a cost, which Europeans must now decide if they are willing to pay.

Historic Charleston, S.C.

The first and most damaging cost was the near obliteration of America's historic main streets, town centers and downtown shopping districts. In the United States there were no policies enacted to protect existing downtowns and business owners from out-of-town competition. In fact, the destruction of town centers in the United States was subsidized by massive investments in interstate highways and bypasses that opened up millions of acres of land for development and literally redirected traffic around, rather than through, historic downtowns. With this destruction came other costs, such as the decline and failure of downtown businesses including the types of small shops and family-run businesses that Europe still enjoys. The final cost is that communities become littered with carcasses of dead retail properties. In the United States a relentless and ever-accelerating cycle of retail Darwinism has been created, one that has witnessed dramatic consolidation of business across market sectors including department stores, grocery stores, drug stores, book stores and home improvement stores.

In 1986, the top three discount department stores accounted for 61 percent of sales in their market segment; a decade later in 1996, they had 85 percent. By 1997, they had 87 percent, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers, a trade group.

It is much the same with drugstores, conventional department stores, and home improvement stores. In the consumer electronics industry, the top three firms had 15 percent of sales in 1986 and 31 percent by 1996. For just those three retailers, annual sales growth averaged 17 percent a year during that time; all others in the business had an overall growth rate of less than 2 percent.(3)

Research by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Kenneth E. Stone in the United States has shown that replacement of small local and regional businesses with national chains results in more of a community's buying power leaving the local economy, as profits pass from chain store to corporate headquarters located in other cities, states and increasingly in other nations.(4) Profits from the locally owned independent store, in contrast, remains largely within the local economy. This is consistent with Jane Jacobs' writing in "The Economy of Cities" and the importance of import substitution for sustaining and rebuilding local economies.

Aerial view of typical United States sprawl reveals the rigid segregation of land uses.

The planned obsolescence of new retail construction is equally astonishing. During a trip to Starksville, Miss., I was driven along the out-of-town commercial strip where we passed by three generations of WalMart stores built within 20 years of one another. Starksville, like hundreds of other U.S. towns and cities, has a retail archeology of hundreds of empty retail stores, strip shopping centers and shopping malls that resulted when larger stores and more specialized retailing formats were built further and further from the city. The decline of America's early suburbs is intertwined with the retail wreckage along these arterials and highways and is not limited to older suburban areas. In Memphis, Tenn., the ongoing construction of an outer loop highway has taken the disposable nature of sprawl development patterns to a new level, leading to the precipitous decline of a suburban area built in the 1980s. As 50 years of experimentation in the United States has proven, the American real estate industry has become very good at building specialized residential, office and retail projects, but the projects themselves are not very good at building communities.

The standard American shopping experience.


There are many in Europe who will point to the commercial success of American-style development, gush about the extraordinary efficiency of the delivery system for chains like WalMart, where large percentages of its inventory are on America's highways en route to consumers rather than sitting in warehouses, and argue that American formulas for commercial development must be adopted wholesale in Europe. They would do well to heed the warnings presented here, and to consider the dilemma in which we currently find ourselves.

Are Europeans prepared to trade cheap goods in exchange for replacing the European way of life with the American way of life?

In 1995, a survey of suburban homebuyers conducted by the American LIVES group found that a remarkable 86 percent of respondents stated a preference for mixed-use, pedestrian-oriented town centers with buildings clustered around a village green, and that only 29 percent favored the status quo consisting of shopping and civic buildings distributed along commercial strips and in malls. Despite the fact that an overwhelming majority of Americans now actually prefer the traditional town center, the forces of finance, specialized real estate practices, standardized retail formats, and outdated public policy continue to induce sprawl and conspire against urbanism, and the work to redevelop the continent-wide morass of commercial sprawl will take several lifetimes to realize. The way back from the brink is long and hard.

This is the final warning from America and reveals just how daunting it becomes to undo the damage wrought by large-scale retail chains and disposable commercial properties. Even our new town centers and main streets that strive to adopt traditional urbanism are largely populated by the same chain stores and restaurants that populate strip centers, shopping malls and "out parcels" in sprawl. Quality of life is not equivalent to cost of living, and the value of savings wrought from purchases of jumbo rolls of toilet paper at WalMart is not a perfect substitute for the social use value or the employment and community reinvestment value of corner stores and family-owned and run businesses. Cashing in the European way of life for cheaper underwear and 57 varieties of toothpaste instead of 12 is a myopic exchange and cuts to the heart of European apprehensions over the Americanization of their economies and cultures.

I do a presentation titled "The Second Coming of the American Town Center." For the EuroCouncil I reinterpreted this as "The Second Coming of the Market Place," for this is what European urbanists must bring about with respect to changes in retail practices that are already upon them. It is not a question of turning back the clock; the genie is out of the bottle and Europeans will continue to demand opportunities to purchase lower cost goods and services. It is also likely that development on the outskirts of European cities will continue as the need for housing increases development pressures. This article, and most that discuss town centers, puts an emphasis on retail, but the way back from commercial sprawl involves confronting each piece of single-use sprawl -- residential, office, retail, hotel, civic, light industry -- and reassembling portions of this in the form of traditional neighborhoods, town centers, high streets and market places.

To protect European town centers, market places and high streets at all costs, the United States offers pragmatic, hard-earned knowledge on how to begin reconciling the demands of modern retailing and large-scale commercial, office and residential development with the practice of urban place making. My book "Place Making" (Urban Land Institute, 2002) chronicles the first attempts to reconcile these opposing forces in the United States; I included several examples of this in my presentation at the EuroCouncil.

U.S. developers and designers have advanced rapidly to develop urban design and real estate strategies that adapt large-scale retail, office and residential uses to more urban formats. This has involved countless challenges to conventional practices and beliefs concerning parking, highway access and visibility, market acceptance of urban residential and office types, reconfiguration of big boxes to provide a street-orientation, and entrenched finance, development and management practices in a pure market-based system. Turning these conventional models around has been an impressive accomplishment and one that can inform the European struggles to adapt the now pervasive moves to introduce American-style commercial development.

Americans, on the other hand, still have much to learn from their European counterparts with respect to architecture, especially in cases involving the urban core. I highlighted the weak architecture of many U.S. town center projects during my EuroCouncil presentation. In the United States, the struggle to move from the low level of design skill and investment required for a conventional strip mall facade to those capable of creating a respectable urban retail architecture has been daunting and very much a matter of dollars over design. Without any assurance that a pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use format would succeed, developers were loathe to lavish money on architecture, and still decry what they consider excessive premiums paid for the architecture and design of new town centers. Within the short-term investment time frame of most U.S. developers, these are costs that can only be justified through greater public subsidy of town centers (something much more unusual in the United States than in Europe) or evidence of higher profits to developers (something yet to be established).

Miami Lakes, Fla. (1983)

Mashpee Commons, Mass. (1986)

Mashpee Commons, steeple retrofit (1999)

Mizner Park, Fla. (1989)

City Place, Fla (1998)

Santana Row, Calif. (2000)

There is reason for hope, however, as a quick chronological survey of United States town center projects built since the mid-1980s reveals some dramatic and very obvious improvements in their architecture as each new project has raised the standard for those that follow. As the general quality of architecture in U.S. projects improves, the lingering issue for Europeans will concern architectural style. (See sidebar, "The 'Oppressive' Design of Southlake Town Square's Town Hall").

In the United States we are just beginning to rediscover the possibilities for creating complex, civic-oriented, human scale market places. Some of our greatest inspiration comes from the historic market places and high streets of Europe. The new U.S. town centers pale in comparison to these great historic urban settings, but their stature grows when placed alongside Europe's slab-urbs, town centers of new towns, and contemporary Eurosprawl.

In time the new U.S. town centers may evolve into richer, more complex urban places, but here, at the time of their birth, they are urban fragments (perhaps seeds) in a sea of sprawl. But each one also represents a real world learning experience in how to reconcile the age of the automobile, large scale retailing and other specialized development, and the realities of 21st century real estate finance and development practices. To that end they are experiments extremely worthy of further study on both sides of the Atlantic.

1. The term "Shop and Awe" is a reference to the "Shock and Awe" tagline given to the US assault on Iraq. The assault occurred in March 2003, one week before the EuroCouncil in Belgium took place.

2. "Italians Bid Arrivederci To Mom-And-Pop Grocers," Los Angeles Times, February 16, 2003.

3. "Retailers Making Big Plans Despite Warning Signs," The Record (Bergen County, N.J.), May 16, 1999.

4. Stone, Kenneth E., "Impact of Wal-Mart Stores and other Mass Merchandisers in Iowa, 1983-1993," Economic Development Review, Spring, 1995.

Charles C. Bohl is a research associate professor and director of the Knight Program in Community Building, a program associated with the University of Miami School of Architecture. He has taught planning and urban design at UNC-Chapel Hill and NCSU School of Design. Bohl is author of "Placemaking: Town Centers, Main Streets and Transit Villages."