It's old news that customers are buying and browsing online instead of in brick-and-mortar stores. Even window shopping is done online-- while bored in class, in a waiting room, at work, at home-- which means the notion of a 'shopping experience' is pretty much extinct. I'd be willing to bet that soon, the classic image of a glamorous woman walking down the sidewalk with eight shopping bags on each arm will be as vintage as a photo of a pin-up girl. The discussion rages on about how markets will adapt their entire business model to online sales. Newspapers (online newspapers because, you know, print stands are looking pretty vintage nowadays too) run stories about small business suffering under the weight of online-shopping giants. We see signs saying "business closing-- everything must go!" and drive by empty store fronts. If you drive by the wrong strip mall, it looks almost post-apocalyptic.
But that's the thing -- what happens to the all the square footage that housed shelves of merchandise that are now sold online? Before we lamented the fact that brick-and-mortar was being replaced by computer screens , people lamented the fact that nature was being swallowed up by brick-and-mortar. And now that everything from banks to clothing stores to colleges, even, are going online, we are failing to see the overwhelming up-side: if done right, the digital revolution could mean way more space to breath.
Fredrick Law Olmstead called Public Parks the “lungs of the city.” This great GOOD article talks about some of the best public spaces in the country—it points out just how important natural public spaces are, especially in dense, urban areas. When Olmstead and Calvert Vaux created Central Park in 1873, they made it clear that such spaces were essential to American life.
Empty spaces don’t have to necessarily become occupied by parks and nature—there are other creative ways to make use of vacancy. In England, a man named Dan Thompson decided to embrace the DIY atmosphere of the 21st century and created The Empty Shop Project. Basically he initiates collaborations between landlords of vacant stores and artisans, artists and members of the community so that empty spaces can be turned into markets, galleries, and pop-ups shops. How cool is that?
When I walk through the streets of Boston, I rarely see community spaces on my regular routes. I live across the street from the Boston Commons and that makes an enormous difference in my lifestyle and my general mood—I couldn’t live without it. Stores can still thrive online—internet retail is a way to make money, not lose it. So why not embrace the breathing space and take back square footage, as a community?