Thinking Outside the Big Box Store

Somewhere along the way, it became unfashionable to provide a unique shopping experience in most Canadian cities. In the past decade, the way we shop has been transformed by big box store complexes being built across the country. At first glance, one might think it is great to see these highly desirable chain stores locating in their city. But have you ever travelled to another city and noticed their box store complex looks eerily similar to yours?

This change in development style has drastically altered the way we shop. Before the big box store phenomenon, it was possible to walk, drive or bike to a downtown and visit several stores by strolling down tree lined sidewalks with interesting storefronts to glance in as you walk by. These were desirable places for people to spend their time and money.

As these cookie cutter box stores popped up, people stopped visiting downtowns as they were less automobile friendly than the concrete jungle that is a big box complex. The power centres are usually located far from the road, and rarely close to any residential neighbourhoods, forcing most visitors to drive there. They are located far from the road to allow for massive parking lots, and huge store fronts with very few windows. Overall this has created a very bland, boring shopping experience.

Have you ever visited a big box store, and wanted to visit another one that was close by? Did you walk or did you get back in your car to drive 30 seconds to the next parking lot? If you drove, I don’t blame you… it’s not your fault! These plazas are not designed with the pedestrian in mind, with very few sidewalks, and massive amounts of automobile traffic.

But it does not have to be this way! Local governments need to recognize that they are in control of the type of development that occurs in their community. These stores WANT to locate in your community in order to make money. Developers need to be told that if they want to build in your city, they’ll need to do it in a way that does not just meet their needs but the needs of the people that will be using the shopping centres for years to come.

Unfortunately, it appears local governments struggle to do this unless there is significant public opposition to cookie cutter development. A successful example of this was seen in Park Royal Village in Vancouver. When city planners and public officials heard a significant amount of public opposition to another cookie cutter development, they were able to hold the developer to a higher standard and the result was a great, unique shopping experience for the community to be proud of.

These shopping centres shape the way we live and interact with our city, and every effort needs to be made to create the best spaces possible. All you have to do is say something.

Special thanks to Dr. Brian Lorch for the photo of the Vancouver Home Depot and background information.

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Filed under Rant, Tourism Development

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