The Urbanism We Already Have

How I Learned to See the Flip Side of Inconvenience

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Have you ever heard someone say something like “I got a great deal on an intercity bus ticket, but the bus was dirty and cramped”? Or “there’s this run-down old restaurant in a dumpy strip mall, but it’s amazing!” Ever had someone say (or thought to yourself), “Trader Joe’s is awesome, but that damn parking lot!”

I’ve had all these thoughts and I’ve heard them expressed before. I think most people see the inconvenience and the amenity separately, and weigh them against each other. I remember a conversation with a friend back in New Jersey. He and his dad went out to breakfast at a nice place in town, when his mom was away. It took them a few minutes to find a parking spot, and then they had a nice breakfast. His dad called his mom as they headed back home, and said something like, “We had a hell of a time finding somewhere to park!” My friend thought this was interesting, that a little bit of momentary parking frustration defined the morning for his dad. I think this is a pretty typical attitude.

For me, going to Trader Joe’s always involves that “am I going to get a spot right away?” question. Sometimes you pull right in. Other times you circle once or twice. Sometimes you get stuck in a line of cars and nobody can move at all for a little bit. It’s frustrating, compared to the virtual guarantee of a spot at most other chain stores in the suburbs.

I personally have another version of this: there’s a little independent coffee roastery/shop I sit in a couple of days a week to write. It’s lovely—unique menu, quirky, nicely decorated space, knowledgeable baristas who actually want to be there, little upstairs nook where you can sit without the constant in-and-out traffic by the counter.

The only downside of the place is it has one little bathroom. Not one men’s room and one women’s room. Just one bathroom. And wouldn’t you know, half the time I need to hit the men’s room, it’s occupied. It’s frustrating. “This place would be perfect if it just had a second bathroom!” I often think. (They used to have a location in the lobby of an office building, with a huge multi-stall men’s room and a conference room and small kitchen by a hybrid general seating/coffee-shop seating area. I liked that one, but it was much sparser and less quirky than the one I go to now.)

These sorts of situations present themselves fairly often. But the “but”—this place is fun and quirky but it only has one bathroom—is misplaced. The old bus is cheap, the hole-in-the-wall restaurant is amazing, the coffee shop fits into a neat little commercial space, the Trader Joe’s is such an inexpensive fun store, because of the inconveniences or shortcomings built in. The inconvenience is sort of like the shadow cast by the amenity.

Being an urbanist is learning to deal with the shadows, and even to seek them out in order to find what amenity might be concealed by them. These are things I think of as being “urbanist” in spirit if not in land use—quirky, flexible, compact places that make the best use of space and open up opportunities for small business owners and customers who want a break from cookie-cutter chain stores. This is the urbanism we already have, but which the average person has trouble seeing because of the moments of friction or inconvenience involved in getting to or using them.

But think about how those things can’t be separated. The low-prices-for-elevated-products schtick of Trader Joe’s would break down if the chain had to spend a lot more on land—they famously build their lots tight and small in order to minimize commercial rents. That frustrating, claustrophobic parking experience is what gets you the neat shopping experience. The inexpensive commercial space in a run-down strip mall is what gets you those cheap, amazing restaurants. The space with the single small bathroom is how you get a cool local coffee shop with a second floor to work quietly.

When you raise the floor for quality, you don’t always get more. Sometimes you get nothing, because the enterprises that need these kinds of spaces don’t work out once you add the expense of meeting the higher standard. More precisely, what the customer might perceive as a higher standard can function for the business owner as a barrier to entry. This is a microcosm of zoning, too: one reason many people like single-family zoning is the idea that Americans deserve a little house and lot of their own. But many people simply can’t reach this minimum standard, and instead of getting a smaller place or a multifamily dwelling or an SRO room, they get nothing.

Before I “was an urbanist”, I would have just seen the inconveniences associated with quirky small businesses. The “but” stuck in my mind. Now I realize that giving up some immediate comfort or convenience often gets you something much more valuable. The other way of putting that is that our demand for never waiting or being inconvenienced, or for having shiny new surroundings, forecloses so much richness, variety, and entrepreneurship in our everyday surroundings.

I imagine being asked to make a wish. I might say, “I wish the Trader Joe’s parking lot were twice as big!” “I wish my favorite coffee shop had a big men’s room that was never fully occupied!” “I wish my favorite Thai restaurant weren’t in a dingy strip plaza!”

“Very well, your wishes will be granted,” the genie might say.

And the Trader Joe’s, the coffee shop, and the wonderful restaurant would all disappear.

Let’s always be working to make our places better. But sometimes we should pause and evaluate what “better” really means, and whether we don’t already have some of it hiding behind our attitudes and expectations.

Addison Del Mastro is a Partner Writer for the Resident Urbanist. He writes from Northern Virginia on urbanism, retail, cultural history, and other assorted issues, with a focus on the ideas and psychology behind urbanism. Of particular interest to him are small towns, the ongoing urbanization and "growing up" of the suburbs, and what urbanism looks like outside of the big city. He runs The Deleted Scenes. You can follow him on Twitter and Threads.

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