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Review: Street Commerce: Creating Vibrant Urban Sidewalks

By Lacey Sigmon

Street Commerce: Creating Vibrant Urban Sidewalks

Andres Sevtsuk

University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020 296 pages | 7 x 10 | 83 illus.

Andres Sevtsuk’s book, “Street Commerce: Creating Vibrant Urban Sidewalks” uses anecdotal exposition and quantitative research to help readers better understand urban street commerce through the lens of technocrats. In Sevtsuk’s own words, he states that, “In the chapters that follow, I bring the various levers of urban street commerce together for one particular group of influencers--urban planners and designers” (Sevtsuk, 2020, 8). In this way, Sevtsuk uses “Street Commerce” as a means to break down the mainstream narrative that the market is the primary driver of street commerce. Instead, he illustrates the ways in which policymakers and technocrats affect both the built environment and the lives of the residents that live there. Their decisions impact the emergence and viability of street commerce.

Sevtsuk’s book makes a pointed effort to illustrate the inequities in community access to purchase basic goods and the financial and systemic support to own and run a business. Because of who the author wrote the book for, the solutions presented are squarely within the existing framework of planning and design practice. Some of the tools offered are novel and when pushed to their limits could be highly impactful. However, progressive planners would find more efficacy in reframing the overall findings and utilizing them to inform more radical solutions that are not purely at the hands of technocrats or policymakers.

What is Street Commerce?

By “street commerce” Sevtsuk is primarily referring to retail patterns that are best accessed by pedestrians and public transit users. Sevtsuk states, “By fostering dialogic social exchange, streets are part of the glue that holds an urban society together” (Sevtsuk, 2020, 3). He further states:

Experiencing the city on foot along its streets helps generate weak ties--it provides the opportunity for serendipitous encounters with members of our social networks we do not see very often. Furthermore, a walk down a street full of diverse amenities and people also produces what might be called “latent” ties--social connections that do not preexist, but which can sprout from casual encounters, unplanned conversations or simply eye contact. Some of these first time encounters can lead to exchanges that grow into weak or even strong ties over time. (Sevtsuk, 2020, 4)

In the first few chapters of the book, Sevtsuk explores patterns and influences on development and spatial organization of street commerce. Included is an analysis of how population density, demand, costs, and spatial clustering impact patterns of street commerce. Sevtsuk makes the argument that when looking at cities using a “big picture” lens, there is compelling research to show that spatial patterns of street commerce are predictable by looking at previously mentioned factors. However, once you take a closer look at a city, the complexity of how these factors impact the spatial distribution and makeup of street commerce is revealed. These chapters set the stage for the author to take a deeper dive into these factors.

How can street commerce be fostered or created?

After both revealing and complicating the picture of the patterns of street commerce, Sevtsuk explores the common tools planners, designers, and policymakers use to support the development and sustainability of street commerce. Included are Business Improvement Districts (BIDs), co-ops, focused commercial developments, and pedestrian and public transit-oriented street design.

One particularly interesting section of the book discusses how businesses can coordinate to support the viability of street commerce. BIDs are especially popular means of doing so in the United States, but primarily benefit big-box retailers, as they don’t have a particularly equitable structure (Sevtsuk, 2020, 98). Similarly, malls and other forms of highly planned commercial development, referred to as “lifestyle centers,” are another means of coordinating the clustering of complimentary businesses. Like BIDs, they tend to support the inclusion and success of big-box retailers over small locally-owned unique businesses, as the reliability of profit and success are the ultimate goals of these types of coordinated efforts (Sevtsuk, 2020, 109).

Ultimately, while the coordination and centralized decision making that leads to stability and strong oversight over BIDs, malls, and lifestyle centers may be appealing to some businesses, they do not have equitable benefits on smaller businesses, and are ultimately less appealing to those who interact with these spaces. One obvious reason is that the “public” space in BIDs, malls, and lifestyle centers is actually private highly regulated space which is policed and surveilled much more than the actual public space that is owned and maintained by cities or towns. Additionally, Sevtsuk argues:

Even the best efforts in holistically coordinated shopping centers to achieve diversity and authenticity cannot match the serendipity that multifaceted urban retail clusters can spontaneously produce. The genuine diversity that results from fragmented decision making is itself an asset that invites people to a place not only to shop, but also to experience surprise, difference and chance encounters. (Sevtsuk, 2020, 111)

For this reason, Sevtsuk spends some time in the book discussing the opportunity to expand the use of cooperatives for businesses. In this way, coordinated decisions could be made in such a way that it benefits a group of businesses equitably and if focused on smaller locally owned businesses, would have greater positive economic impacts on the local economy than big box retailers do (Sevtsuk, 2020, 102). Sevtsuk notes that he was unable to find many examples of business cooperatives outside of an example in Minneapolis called the Northeast Investment Cooperative (NEIC), which was formed by members who committed at least $1,000 for a share in the co-op. In doing so, they became a voting member of the board and were also beneficiaries of the dividends born by their investment. The investments were then used to purchase commercial space which can be leased out in such a way that it sustains the co-op. This makes the decision making and policy making more complex than a typical landlord/tenant relationship as a co-op board can establish goals and priorities outside of profit (Sevtsuk, 2020, 101). While Sevtsuk doesn’t explore this much further, and it appears that there is great opportunity in a co-op model for businesses, one obvious criticism is that it still centralizes decision making into a group of investors/shareholders, no matter how small the required contribution is, there will continue to be concerns with who can access those positions of power.

How can street commerce be made equitable?

While Sevtsuk helps to put words and data to the feelings most people who live or visit cities feel when engaging with street life, one of the more important takeaways from the book is the ways in which street commerce reflects the tensions of power and equity of living and surviving in cities. There is a relationship between the rise in e-commerce, which has reduced the need or desire to shop for essentials as a chore, while increasing the appeal of “experience-based” shopping and dining (Sevtsuk, 2020, 185). This, compounded by the impact of residential gentrification, has led to the replacement of brick-and-mortar businesses selling necessities with luxury-good and food establishments with price ranges geared towards the middle-and upper- class consumers who have begun to inhabit gentrifying neighborhoods (Sevtsuk, 2020, 190). Gentrification has led to widespread displacement of local businesses. Sevtsuk outlines in the book that the Bronx has witnessed the largest increase in evictions of small businesses and the largest influx of chain stores of all five boroughs in New York City (Sevtsuk, 2020, 49). One of the primary, while obvious, lessons from “Street Commerce,” is that pure market forces on their own will not combat the gentrification of local businesses or lead to the success of street commerce, “good streets with diverse retail and service choices, run by diverse owners and serving diverse interest, requires conscious planning and management” (Sevtsuk, 2020, 31).

The survival of local businesses, which is essential for street commerce, is threatened by increases in rent. The financial benefit these businesses offer to the community far outweighs that of their big-box counterparts, because the money stays in the community (Sevtsuk, 2020, 48). Commercial gentrification has tangible consequences for residents who depend on the goods and services of local businesses. Especially when local businesses are replaced by high-end retailers, with profit margins to withstand the rising rents, it requires community members to travel further and further out for the goods and services they need within their budget. The changing nature of businesses is one of the first signifiers of impending residential gentrification. However, the displacement of local shops often gets lost in policy work that aims to prevent displacement from residential gentrification (Sevtsuk, 2020, 49).

Sevtsuk cites an example in San Francisco, Measure J, which provides financial support for legacy businesses to help them weather rising rents. However, this measure focuses on historic businesses of a particular nature, and does not necessarily benefit businesses that provide necessities (Sevtsuk, 2020, 115). In this way, while Measure J can help some businesses which will likely provide unique experience based shopping (i.e. geared to tourists), it doesn't help to combat the inequity of residential and commercial gentrification in taking away access to basic needs for the residents that are trying to continue to live in the city.

The Takeaways

Sevtsuk ends “Street Commerce” with five takeaways:

  1. There is no “one-size fits-all” solutions that will work in every city

  2. Good street commerce almost never survives under pure market conditions, but rather relies on conscious decision making and planning

  3. Investment in “community-oriented” streets far surpasses other infrastructure investments in its benefit of street commerce

  4. Equitable street commerce means that there will be stores that cater to all income groups and will create amenities and public spaces that all can benefit from

  5. Good street commerce can be achieved anywhere

While “Street Commerce” paints a complicated picture of what drives street commerce, and in turn, how that impacts the lives of those who interact with it, these takeaways can provide a framework to incorporate into practice. As mentioned at the beginning, this book is geared towards technocrats, and for this reason, the book can be dense and overly-technical. But the conclusions of the book are not technical in nature and rather, outline a set of values that activists, community members, and non-technocrats alike can carry into their work and guiding principles. Primarily, that street commerce is not driven only by the market, but that policy and design decisions are highly impactful on street commerce. For this reason, advocating decision makers to address commercial gentrification, stem the proliferation of privately-owned public space, and maintain access to both vibrant street commerce and basic goods and services is essential.

After finishing this book, I took a deep dive into researching a type of street commerce that did not feature heavily in “Street Commerce” but is an essential method of commerce in cities, street vendors. The article, “Advocating for Equitable Street Vending Policies” will be available next week.

Lacey Sigmon is an Urban Planner who works in storm recovery in New York and Texas. She received her Masters Degree from the University of Michigan in Urban Planning with a focus on housing and community development. She received her undergraduate degree from the New College of Florida in Chinese Language and Literature and International Studies.





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