Friday, April 29, 2016

Actually, Whole Foods are both high-price and high-volume

I have said before, I am in many ways generally sympathetic to the utopian urbanists. The problems they address are real and substantial and many of their proposed solutions make a lot of sense to me. That said, the movement, at least in the form that makes it into the popular press, often seems overly narrative-driven, romanticized,and derived and debated from a top decile viewpoint

Cities are all much nicer if you have money, and this is even more true in high density upscale places like New York and San Francisco. Unfortunately, many of the pieces you read advocating the charms of city living are written from the perspective of a six or seven-figure income. There is nothing this is nothing wrong with this perspective as long as the writers maintain a degree of self-awareness, but this is often not the case.

Recently, we've been hearing a lot of arguments claiming we can  get the costs of housing down to reasonable middle-class levels in places like NYC by aggressively building those cities up. Without that middle-class target, the argument would certainly be valid. With the target, the number of new housing units necessary would appear to be huge, particularly since many if not most of the specific proposals we've seen so far focus on upscale housing with relief for middle and lower class markets to come through trickle down effects.

But getting the prices down is only half the problem. We also to consider what living in these hyper-dense cities would look from the vantage of a median income, which brings us to this (with the usual caveats about quoting something you read in one of these pop sci sites).
Indeed, that’s what Colin Ellard, a neuroscientist at the University of Waterloo and director of its Urban Realities Laboratory, has found in his own work. Five years ago, Ellard became interested in a particular building on East Houston Street — the gigantic Whole Foods “plopped into” a notoriously textured part of lower Manhattan. As described in his book, titled Places of the Heart: The Psychogeography of Everyday Life, Ellard partnered with the Guggenheim Museum’s urban think tank to analyze what happens when someone “turns out of a tiny, historic [knish] restaurant” and encounters a full city block with nothing but “the long, blank fa├žade of the Whole Foods Market.”

In 2011, Ellard led small groups on carefully planned Lower East Side walks to measure the effect of the urban environment on their bodies and minds. Participants recorded their response to questions at each stopping point and wore sensors that measured skin conductance, an electrodermal response to emotional excitement. Passing the monolithic Whole Foods, people’s state of arousal reached a nadir in Ellard’s project. Physiologically, he explained, they were bored. In their descriptions of this particular place, they used words like bland, monotonous, and passionless. In contrast, one block east of the Whole Foods on East Houston, at the other test site — a “lively sea of restaurants with lots of open doors and windows” — people’s bracelets measured high levels of physical excitement, and they listed words like lively, busy, and socializing. “The holy grail in urban design is to produce some kind of novelty or change every few seconds,” Ellard said. “Otherwise, we become cognitively disengaged.” The Whole Foods may have gentrified the neighborhood with more high-quality organic groceries, but the building itself stifled people. Its architecture blah-ness made their minds and bodies go meh.

First, as mentioned before, there are lots of reasons to worry about the homogeneity of the people conducting this research, making these proposals, and writing these articles.

With apologies for the snark, if you were to fund grants in the field of "first world problems," I can't imagine anything better than the psychological effects of the lack of architectural charm of a Whole Foods in the middle of a picturesque Manhattan street.This also brings up familiar social science concerns about unrepresentative populations and generalizing from outliers, but, putting all of that aside, let's  assume the results (which seem reasonable enough) are valid and see where they lead us.

Given the numbers being thrown around, it would seem that street-accessible retail, having limited capacity to build up, would largely be forced into one of two models: high price or high-volume.
Either way, retailers will have to make every expensive square foot pay for itself. We've already seen something like this in gentrifying neighborhoods where longstanding and often beloved mom-and-pop businesses are forced out to make way for chain stores and high-end boutiques. Barring some fairly draconian regulation (which would very much go against current conventional wisdom), it's hard to imagine the proposed hyper-dense cities not taking these trends to a new extreme.

Would this be a bad thing? That depends. I don't want to get all nostalgic about some neighborhood pizza joint (if anything, getting New Yorkers to stop going on about their neighborhood pizza places would be a national good). Antiquated and inefficient business model are supposed to go away. I'm not prepared to take a policy stand based on charm and sentimental appeal.

But, of course, I'm not a utopian urbanist. I've always been highly skeptical of these narratives, generally finding them to be overoptimistic and sometimes mutually contradictory. Increasingly dense cities are often held up as a panacea, curing all of our ills be they economic, environmental or cultural. That alone makes me nervous. Add on to that a romanticized, idyllic quality -- music in the cafes at night and innovation in the air – that has been seldom actually observed and is not at all the direction some of these policies seem to be headed.

At least not for the bottom nine deciles.

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