“Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.” – Edward Abbey
I am going to write something somewhat off topic here. It has little directly to do with children and nature, and everything to do with community health. I hope you won’t mind my political rant, but this is very much on my mind lately.
If you are familiar with Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, you may remember Arthur Dent lying down in front of a bulldozer that is preparing to tear down his house. Later we learn that a group of aliens (the Vogons) has been preparing to tear down the earth to make way for an intergalactic superhighway. It makes the bulldozer fight seem rather futile. Nonetheless, I have been having an Arthur Dent experience for the past little while. Sometimes, we just have to do what we can.
I’m not a radical environmentalist. I drive a car. I live in a suburban house. I typically shop in supermarkets, and don’t always buy organic produce. I fully admit I could do better. However, when I found out that a Costco is trying to bulldoze its way into my neighbourhood (with a planned opening in less than 8 months), I felt the need to (metaphorically) lie down in its path.
My planning education and my personal interests have focused a great deal on what makes for a safe, healthy and sustainable community. There is a widely accepted conclusion in this field that big box stores are harmful, economically, environmentally and socially. However, I have been informed by a few different sources, that my community “wants” a Costco. While no one has been able to give me any real data to back up this assertion, and no public consultation was done, it appears to be the general consensus of local politicians. This scares me.
Thankfully, other problems have cropped up. These problems don’t require a basic knowledge of sustainability, local economics or healthy communities. These problems come down to traffic congestion. Traffic-wise, the proposed location is ludicrous. And THIS is what the decision will hinge on. Forget local economy; forget active transportation; forget safety hazards; forget environmental impacts. We must worry exclusively about how to get our cars quickly from point A to point B. But, this may be a strong enough argument to at least stall the construction.
People appear to be missing the bigger picture. They are not considering all of the hidden costs a community pays for a Costco (and other big box retailers generally).
Big box stores drain money from the local economy. A company such as Costco provides powerful incentives in terms of bulk discounts and convenience. Smaller retailers cannot hope to compete, and may even close. Big box stores also spawn further similar kinds of development. This ultimately leads to massive problems with sprawl. Numerous studies have outlined exactly what happens when a big box store comes to town.
Big box stores remove money directly from the local economy. Studies have shown how big box retailers only return a tiny fraction of their profits to the community. Smaller businesses tend to buy locally, and generally keep more money within the community. Small businesses even tend to give far more money to charitable causes than big box retailers do.
Costco is planning to set up shop just down the road from a popular farmer’s market. If you want to know how I feel about those, see here. But, it’s going to be hard for many deal-seeking shoppers to justify spending money on the high quality local food there, when two minutes away, you can buy a massive quantity for the same price.
Cookie cutter warehouse stores with giant parking lots do nothing for a sense of place and responsibility for the community. It is hard to get excited about places that look like prisons.
Big box stores reduce social interaction. One study I read found that a person is seven times more likely to have a conversation with a stranger in a farmer’s market than at a big box store. People who live in places with an abundance of big box stores have even been shown to vote less often.
Big box stores, and Costco in particular, are not designed to be accessible to people using alternative forms of transportation. They promote car-dependency. People just don’t take the bus to Costco. I even saw an online joke making fun of someone bringing their smart car to Costco. So, forget walkable and bikeable communities, although all the plans and strategies for the community state this is a priority.
In addition, a Costco is designed for people who have cars, who can manage bulk packages and who can afford a membership. This is clearly non-inclusive.
Health and Safety Costs
Increasing car dependence carries all sorts of health and safety risks. Increased traffic certainly increases accident risk, and reduces walkability in neighbourhoods. Increased car use contributes to the obesity epidemic. Reduced variety and choice (due to stores closing) also reduces accessibility around neighbourhoods, which should optimally be mixed-use and diverse.
Large parking lots are impermeable surfaces which create water runoff and quality issues. They also create heat islands and can destroy habitat. Since these developments tend to spawn further similar types of buildings, the cumulative effects can be devastating.
Increased car-focused development has many obvious impacts on the environment, from increased air pollution and resource use, to an increased demand for more and wider roads.
The traffic problems are well-documented (See here). The proposed location would create further congestion in an already problematic area. Costco would be drawing massive numbers of cars from the community and surrounding areas and creating a severe bottleneck. Clearly this is a problem. It just isn’t where I choose to spend my energy.
And, in my view, the biggest problem of all:
Every time we build a new big box store and another small business closes, we lose a piece of our community identity. We lose opportunities for stories, for adventures, for creativity, for art, for uniqueness, for nature, for learning and for cultural development. We lose the opportunity to teach future generations what a beautiful, sustainable, vibrant, healthy and safe neighbourhood looks and feels like.
Elected representatives have a responsibility and an opportunity to make good decisions about how our communities function. We select them because we trust that they will do the necessary background research, talk to the necessary people and make a concerted effort to fully understand the impacts of their decisions. My elected officials made commitments to the community to uphold principles of sustainability, active transportation, local economic prosperity, safety, health, and many others. It is my sincere hope that they will consider these principles before making a rash decision.
What is the real price we are paying for giant packages of toilet paper and buckets of ketchup? If the price is the health of our community, forget it!
Please contact me if you would like more information or are willing to join me in front of the metaphorical bulldozer.
I also wrote a letter to the newspaper: http://www.therecord.com/opinion-story/4449232-consider-the-real-costs-of-big-box-stores/
If you made it to the end, thanks for reading!!!