Urban retail

Biblio (115) How much time do French allocate to shopping?


INSEE (the French national statistics office) has just published an interesting report on the time French dedicate to shopping (as well for everyday things as food, as for choice items as clothes). According to the analysis of a series of data between 1974 and 2010, French have reduced their shopping frequency and they spend more time during Saturday, going to longer distances to get the items they purchase.

As of 2010 the average French uses 2 hours 41 minutes per week for shopping; between 1974 and 2010 women have reduced the weekly time for shopping some 28 minutes, while men have increased theirs by 21 minutes. Internet shopping is still reduced in France. 20% think that shopping is a chore, while in 1986 those were only 10%.

These figures may seem far away from urbanism, but they show that for small urban retail, that brings life to cities, times are hard…

What good do shops deliver (4) Chocolate

A chocolate shop just in front of the Madeleine church in Paris

A chocolate shop just in front of the Madeleine church in Paris

Here I use chocolate as well as a direct, factual reference as in a metaphorical way… opening a shop (as any other business) is a display of faith on an idea, in this case a quite public one. Whoever has a blog will easily understand: you have an idea that you prepare, polish and then make public. Then, for reasons you never quite understand, some ideas you thought were not as bright get most of the traffic (or at least that is what wordpress stats say…) while others, brighter at first sight, lag behind. In a blog, the effects of this are usually limited, but in a shop they can mean a difference between earning or loosing substantial money. Sure, mere footfall does not translate into money, but it is usually a precondition to make a product known, and, eventually, to sell something…

A bakery on Rossio Station, Lisbon

A bakery on Rossio Station, Lisbon

The external presence of a shop is essential. A clean, tidy, well-lit showcase is a minimum requirement, but you also need it to be located in a busy place, which implies a cost. To optimize this cost, you have to make attractive as well the premises as the product. Somehow, you have more chances to configure your shop than your product, especially if you are not the maker. Anyway, you have to be different from competitors.

A body care shop in Paris, near the Passage de l'Olympia

A body care shop in Paris, near the Passage de l’Olympia

Sure, shopkeepers want to get clients to see their business; what we get as a collateral effect is a care in the display of some things that configure public space, an aesthetic quality that is sometimes noteworthy. You can sure direct the debate towards consumerism, but it would be missing relevant elements in this situation.

An old hat shop in Rossio Square, Lisbon. Sometimes keeping what you have is the best bet...

An old hat shop in Rossio Square, Lisbon. Sometimes keeping what you have is the best bet…

What good do shops deliver (3) eyes on the street

Looking to the shop from the street...

Looking to the shop from the street…

Feeling safe in public space is somehow related to the perception of not being alone and to the fact that what happens is seen (or can be seen) by those living on or using the street. This has been enunciated by Jane Jacobs and re-used often as “eyes on the street”, with some consequences for retail:

  • Those (shop) eyes are there just during opening hours; they include those of shopkeepers as well as those of those browsing the showcases or the ones buying. The two latest categories will only flock if the space is perceived as safe, so here we have a vicious/virtuous circle…
  • When shops are closed, the only eyes on the street are those of homes (if they exist). If showcases are well lit at night, you can however get a better safety feeling, something that shopkeepers are fully aware of as this increases the perception of the street as secure day-long.
  • The design of showcases influences the number of eyes on the street; the open ones work better.
... or from the shop on the other side...

… or from the shop on the other side… (this is main street Segovia, Spain)

What good do shops deliver (2) aesthetics


This is an image of a city square in a rural area of Spain, and it represents the “zero degree” of the urban retail: a street market. I’ve chosen this image, quite far from idyllic. Here we have the same urban role played by those breath-taking image of Italian markets  conveyed through cuisine tv shows, but there is no substantial contribution to the formal landscape; sure this is more than decent, but it is not elegant, as so many other things in life.


This image corresponds to a street in London, on Mayfair, close to Oxford Street. It is a street without retail; everything is housing (or retail), even if the setback from the sidewalk changes the way in which the buildings relate to the street quite elegantly. The difference with a social housing estate is in the architecture and its dwellers, not in the way in which the building uses are organised; and in the fact that here Bond Street is just a stroll away, albeit it is not necessarily a place in which to get value on groceries…

And this third image is a street in central Mérida (Spain), a city of almost 60.000. it is not main street, but is urban landscape is marked by retail.

comercio mérida

And this third image is a street in central Mérida (Spain), a city of almost 60.000. it is not main street, but is urban landscape is marked by retail.


This fourth image is a set of shops behind Stephen’s Cathedral, in Vienna. Elegant shops in a central setting in which the architecture of the building is far from bad…

You can have beautiful streets with or without retail, or they can be uninteresting on their own; you can have attractive or boring shops. But what commerce brings to citizens using the streets on a daily basis is a material expression of the evolution of the city. And to those coming from out of town retail means a clue on what sort of aesthetics mobilizes local buyers; the extent to which retail implies visual clutter is also noticed by visitors (it can be positive, but not that often). The lack of retail (including bars and restaurants) in a street has its landscape depend just on  building architecture, much more static.

What good do shops deliver (1)


Those who follow this blog probably have already noticed that urban retail has already been the subject of several posts. And time seems ripe to focus again on that issue, for several reasons.

As you may have noticed, I’m writing from a country in which the last years have left us with a feeling of going to work each day as if you were losing a war; an economic crisis that has added to an international slowdown the results of our self-inflicted pains has not helped by any means the general mood. This has translated to urban retail to a situation in which nearly all the businesses, from El Corte Inglés, the national quasi-monopolic (by disappearance of all sizeable alternatives) brand of department stores, to the humblest corner shop, have suffered. Some have struggled but somehow survived , but the coincidence of that general demand crisis with two factors will probably devastate the urban retail landscape we knew. The first one is demographics: many small retailers appeared in a given period (1960s, 1970s), and they are reaching a retirement age, with no replacement in sight. The second one is the end of a regulation that limited the rent rise for old leases.

Sure, Chinese retailers have gained momentum, but they are far from being the only reason for the current slowdown.

Let me reassure you: I’m fully able to sing you the virtues of urban retail; what I will try to do in the next posts is to give you concrete examples of those general ideas. As the above image, taken not far from where I live (not necessarily what you would take as a posh district), tries to convey, sometimes retail is just what differentiates a set of housing units from a real neighborhood.

Paris (20) Noisy Mont d’Est-RER



Paris (as a municipality)  is a small footprint city when compared to other capitals. A central matter for the current French planning scene is how to ensure a coherent urban project with  an administrative fragmentation, in which Paris has 2,2 million residents and an additional 8 million residents live in hundreds of municipalities seldom over 50.000.

Public transportation is essential. Noisy- Mont d’Est is a RER (a kind of metropolitan rail network) station created during the 1980s to serve what was to be the center of one of the new towns whose inception can be traced back to the Gaullist 1960s. As a child I saw the station, the neighborhood and the lake being built… and over time I have seen what was to become a city core fail somehow, despite a strong public cash injection. In part the station contributed, as it had a clear functional project linking rail and bus, but an architecture that relied on scarcely lit underground spaces that contributed to a climate of insecurity (one of the factors fueling the “seismic” result of last Sunday European elections).

A renovation program has moved the station outside, limiting the underground spaces to the platforms themselves, leaving the buses on open air. I’m not sure to see the centrality of the area improve that much (despite the fact that employment exists), but many people can use the bus with a different feeling.

Centrality is in such places a more complex issue: those new towns have obtained over time a set of roles, including universities and corporate headquarters. But two factors have played against these projects up to date. On one side, a configuration in which, despite a presence of public transportation, car has remained central. On the other side, the asymmetry between a public power that is to make its strategies explicit through planning and a private sector not bound to this, which has, especially in the first years of the new towns, having no constraining laws, created big box retail in peripheral locations that prevented other retail operators from locating in planned centralities. And an urban core without a strong retail base is a complex thing to get…



Back of the envelope calculations (3) Amazon’s trails: wings vs knees

Taking as a starting point the previous post on the text about the future of employment by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne, we can produce some ideas. Home delivery was until now one of those jobs that was deemed as a human task, as the amount of unpredictable situations that could happen made the substitution by machines almost impossible to substitute a person (that anyway earned a limited wage).
Some months ago Amazon, the internet retailer, published some videos about a new ultra-fast delivery system for small loads, Prime air, based on small drones.

The video shows a quite American context: the drone takes off from a logistical base and delivers a small pack by landing on the client’s garden. In a country like Spain, in which most of the people live in apartment buildings, this would have some problems, and the same can be said about other countries in which Amazon operates.
Taking existing drones with a design that seems similar to those shown on the video, as the Parrot AR Drone, the idea of a 30 minute delivery time seems limited: the Parrot cruises at 18 km/h (some 12 miles/h). Let’s assume that Amazon uses twice that speed, so in half an hour you would get as far a 18 km (without considering the time to prepare the pack in the fulfilment centre). This means that if this idea is serious, either Amazon multiplies its fulfilment centres (losing a strategic edge over conventional retailers), or it will limit this system to the areas closest to its 55 fulfilment centres in North America (MWPVL international data for april 2014). The fact is that these centers are in quite peripheral locations, so the population that could be reached would be limited. The following map shows the location of the two Amazon fulfilment centres in the Los Angeles Basin, San Bernardino (open in 2012) and Moreno Valley (to open in 2014), on a heat map rendering of population densities (census 2010), with the road network and a 18 km grid. The idea of delivery on the same day seems much more realistic than 30 minutes delivery, and probably on that time scale the road would be more competitive than a sprawl of fulfilment centres. On the other side, in Madrid the Amazon base is in San Fernando de Henares, just slightly over 18 km from Puerta del Sol, the urban core; in a denser city, a single centre would cover a substantially higher share of the metro population… but as they live mainly in multi-storey buildings drones would have problems.

Delivery by drone raises other issues. Civil aviation regulations are stringent in terms of rules to ensure the safe take-off and landing of aircraft, especially in terms of geometric conditions and electromagnetic interference. It is clearly possible that Amazon could design its fulfilment centres to adapt to those rules, with take-off and landing corridors adapted and without obstacles, which would be easier for choppers. Besides, both LA locations, for instance, are near an airport. However, how do you know if the delivery address complies with such rules? Trees, posts, buildings make a good bunch of potential obstacles. Sure, we have good aerial images, but the problem here is more complex: there would be a need for a good 3D cartography, up to date, with these obstacles, and there is the issue of the liability of a homeowner that by extending his home with a plan-abiding project restricts the air accessibility of a neighbouring property. This would certainly make way more complex volumetric conditions for buildings.
Let’s just go back to the problem: what a deliveryman does today? He comes in a vehicle that the parks (as he can), goes down, and uses the sidewalk to get to the building lot. If the home is individual, he gets to the gate. If it is an apartment building, he must enter a common space, and then use a lift or the stairs. Hard for a chopper. Would Amazon’s idea be closer to Valkyrie, NASA’s robot? At first sight, it seems more feasible, especially in dense cities, but it seems also far away in time. In fact, the most logical solution (even more for denser cities with frequent traffic jams) would be a walking robot… able to run on freeways, passing through cars in a traffic jam and nullifying the parking problem, as it could just go up five storeys of stairs up to any apartment. The issue is to know if this would really cost less (just in economic terms) than to pay a person. This would not touch that much the urban fabric in physical termes, but it would matter in terms of parking… and also in terms of the existing retail basis.

Back of the envelope calculations (2) 32 households


In 2012 each Spaniard spent on average 1.585 euros in food and non-alcoholic beverages, according to INE’s statistics on household expenditure. The average expenditure by household was 4.060 euros. So each week there was an average expenditure of 78 euros. These figures are a national average, taking into account central Madrid and the last rural hamlet, so computing a wide array of costs and expenditure capacity.
According to data from the realtor idealista.com, there is in Madrid a certain amount of retail spaces to be let at about 5€/sq m, usually in peripheral areas with low- middle-income families.
Taking as a criteria that the rent would be equivalent to 5% of sales, a 100 sq m space with a 5€/sq m monthly rent should sell 10.000 € each month; i.e., it should have 32 households spending their whole food budget each week if you want to be in the food segment.
Those figures must be fine-tuned taking into account location, client conditions, retail strategy or shop format. But they are clearly indicating why retail concentrates, and why it would not be realistic to expect large shop numbers in low density urban areas (but for big-box retail). So density matters a lot.

The full picture: density helps

The full picture: density helps

Biblio (83) The city at eye level

biblio83 city eye level


Sometimes you stumble upon a website that happens to be a the entrance to a book. This Biblio is just that, but it also seems to hold the promise for more things. To be sure, it is at heart the site of a business (a planning practice, which is nothing to be ashamed of), but it is worth the visit.

The main thesis of the book is that street plinths (that horizontal strip of building space that you see when walking the street) are an essential part in the character and liveability of any given city. Something I will hardly contend with, as I have often to work on urban space matters, be it retail or overall design. Sometimes Americans seem to think (I know there are millions Americans, I’m only judging from what I read often in blogs) that Europe is the lost Arcadia for urban shape, but in fact this is not always true, and this book, combining views from different geographical perspectives give a rich picture of it. The main authors are Dutch (Stipo, a multi-disciplinary team), but they have invited contributors from other countries, so you can see how the urban spaces of Rotterdam work, but also a plea for urban garages by a Flemish architect, among other things.

The book states, taking the forecasts of experts, that 30% of current retail units could be wiped out by the internet commerce; I assume that this can be an average for the Netherlands, but anyway things are changing in every country (for instance, variations in lease price rise limitations that exist in some places can be a more powerful factor). So one of the central points of the book, that urban plinths are not limited to retail use, become ever more needed as reflection grounds. That said, the book also has sections on retail that are interesting.

This book is based on an European view on the city that has some parallels to the US New Urbanism, but with the difference that it intends to work mainly on the existing urban tissue, so with more potential effect on how everyday life can be improved for far more people. Besides, the issue is not so much a given architectural “style”, but rather a play with the defining elements of the streetscape (something Americans as Christopher Alexander have worked with)