by Mateja Mihinjac
Local shops and offices that occupy storefronts of downtown and suburban streets inject life into those places. Without them, these areas would not attract local residents or visitors and that would leave downtown areas barren and vulnerable to crime. Vacant storefronts communicate messages to passers-by such as an economic downturn, unsafe conditions, or a lack of care. These were some of the responses shared by the participants in a field study I conducted last year.
THE EXTENT OF THE PROBLEM
While an increase in storefront vacancies appears almost universal across western countries, the extent of the problem varies between countries, cities and even within the neighborhoods:
- In Manhattan, researchers counted approximately 1000 empty storefronts within a 59 square kilometer area resulting in 10-20% of vacant shops across this densely populated urban island.
- In one mid-sized Canadian city where I conducted my research, I counted over 20 vacancies within a 0.14 square kilometer downtown area where the overall vacancy rate was estimated at 7.5%.
- Chicago identified on average 11.5% vacant storefronts across the city with their south suburbs’ vacancies peaking at 21.8%.
- The UK has also seen a surge in their high streets store vacancies since 2015, with a national average of 10.3%.
- The rest of Europe is no exception.
Some cities, such as Melbourne, have experienced reductions in their downtown vacant rates but have observed more issues with suburban areas. A scan across 11 suburban retail strips uncovered a vacancy rate of 8.4% with the highest at nearly 17%.
Given a commonly cited 5% “acceptable” vacancy rate, it is not surprising that vacant shopping corridors are a growing worry of commercial experts, CPTED practitioners, and criminologists who study such matters.
REASONS BEHIND VACANCIES
Vacancies are not uniformly distributed across cities and suburbs for a number of reasons. Some include:
- Cost of rent; many small independent shops can no longer afford expensive rents and instead give space to large chain stores and shops instead. This is especially problematic in more expensive parts of the cities and affluent suburbs. Landlords have been chastised for maintaining an empty storefront while waiting for affluent renters.
- The post-recession rent bubble; to boost the economy following the 2008/09 recession, developers expanded commercial corridors resulting in over-supply of physical shops with highly-priced rent a few years later.
- E-commerce or online shopping are blamed as the main culprit for closing brick and mortar shops. So-called dry retail businesses have seen a significant decrease, while food, beverage, fitness and service retail storefronts appear to be on the rise.
Other possible reasons for vacancies include rezoning, gentrification and shifting consumer preferences. Ultimately, vacant storefronts not only influence the economy, but they influence safety and social life. In short, when vacancies arise, conditions also arise for street crime and worsening fear.
WHAT CAN BE DONE?
In our Third Generation CPTED article last year, we pinpoint the importance of social, economic, and environmental sustainability as protective factors against neighbourhood decline. Active local shops and robust local economies are paramount for a decent quality of life. This is a core principle of our vision of liveable 21st Century cities.
The next blog will explore how vacant storefronts impact crime and possible solutions for addressing them.