The economic recovery from COVID-19 needs to focus on supporting local businesses and establishing the conditions in which they can flourish. The old strategies of economic development simply weren't working.
An increasing amount of money was being lost from the local economy, largely to big-box and online retailers. Studies show that for every dollar spent at a big box store just $0.14 is recirculated in the community. This is compared to nearly $0.50 of every dollar spent in independent stores.
Walkable retail and business districts are one of the main recommendations made by Strong Towns, a non-profit that focuses on helping municipalities become financially strong and resilient, for how municipalities can support entrepreneurs.
What’s the big deal with getting people out of their cars and walking?
Well, to borrow an analogy from Strong Towns, land-use planning is the hardware of a community, while the interests and relationships of citizens is the software.
By providing hardware that brings people together land-use planning can strengthen a sense of community, including the sharing of skills and ideas that are crucial to an innovative economy.
Supporting this dynamic interplay between people provides the basis, along with the shift in focus away from big box stores, for an approach to economic development known as economic gardening.
Economic gardening is the work of establishing the right conditions for businesses to flourish. It’s taking a holistic approach, working with the soil, the water, the sunlight, to continue the analogy, so that the plants are happy and successful.
One major benefit to increasing this dynamic interplay, the interactions that happen between people in the course of their daily life, may be the casual face time between consumers and proprietors.
Establishing opportunities for these interactions to happen, bringing people into public spaces that interface with businesses may act to increase local purchasing, rather than the continued and increasing reliance upon online retailers and delivery.
The key distinction here is between walkable communities and communities where residents have to get into their car to drive to access goods and services.
The act of driving more often means that the consumer has a set need or goal in mind, and the trip to the store is, often, simply to get what they need. Walking around a community, however, presents far more opportunities for window shopping, happening upon something that piques the interest, developing a relationship with a proprietor, etc.
If Amazon is hollowing out local business, it is, at least in part, due to the convenience that comes from not having to get in the car and go through the rigamarole of having to drive as the means of accessing the goods. The appeal of Amazon’s model, their flagship service, if you will, is being able to deliver a purchase right to the home, at no additional cost, often within a day or two.
By creating spaces where consumers encounter possibilities to purchase goods and services they may need or want in the natural course of their day, you are enhancing the potential for trade to occur. This is precisely what walkable neighbourhoods help do.
Walkable communities also support greater economic resilience. As André Picard, the well known health correspondent, writes, “walking is good for the environment, crime prevention, community-building and the economy. Conversely, the most unhealthy, unsafe, anti-social and costly thing people do routinely is drive.”
What Picard is pointing to are also known as co-benefits, or the benefits that flow from creating communities that are more walkable. Just one step further along the co-benefit causal chain is the increased savings in money spent in areas such as healthcare, environmental remediation, policing, to name a few.
Consider the benefit to a community if residents spent the money that they would otherwise put towards car ownership on local goods and services. Car ownership is the second largest expense most Canadains have, after home ownership, and this would divert a huge amount of money into local businesses and communities. A portion of this money, in turn, would find its way into municipal coffers, flowing again from there into our parks, libraries, schools, and community centres.
Building our communities to suit the needs of residents, focusing on providing the right conditions for success, and enabling people to co-create the built environment, can help establish the foundation for a successful and resilient local economy.
This op-ed is adapted from a more detailed post exploring how entrepreneurs can be supported in a Just Recovery from COVID-19. It can be read at the Just Recovery Simcoe website, at justrecoverysimcoe.ca.
About the author:
Adam Ballah is community organizer with the Simcoe County Greenbelt Coalition. The Simcoe County Greenbelt Coalition promotes prudent land-use planning to benefit the health and wellbeing of our communities, and is a signatory to the Just Recovery Simcoe initiative.
Adam has a BES and MES from York University, with focuses on climate change vulnerability, adaptation, and resilience, and the role that modern technology plays in society, respectively.