The greatest threat to the world is…

… cul-de-sacs? Ok, they mean that as a metaphor and want to promote the New Urbanism, with stores in walkable distance and lots of light rail.

Our old place in South San Francisco was a bit like that. We could walk to Trader Joe’s, Costco, and there was a BART staion across the street. SF itself has excellent public transportation, is a walking city. However there are few if any big box stores because city ordinances ban them. I wasn’t sure that was a positive. Sure, it keeps the local quality of a neighborhood and allows small stores to thrive, but it’s also handy to be able to stock up on bulk items cheaply at Costco. If you have a multitude of small stores, then trucking items to them gets way more complicated, as well as carbon-producing, than having them shipped to a few big box stores.

But yes, being able to walk to stores and events is a huge plus. Too many suburban areas have nothing but houses, and you must drive, rather than walk, everything.


  1. In general, the greenest option is to buy local items from a local vendor. Second best– for those items like paper towels and electronics that aren’t manufactured locally– are the big box stores. They use less packaging and less transportation.

    Our nearest Costco is over an hour away, so Wally World serves a necessary second-best. But we do our best to eat local food purchased from a locally-owned market (or from local farmers)– and to use local services whenever possible.

  2. Let’s not get carried away with personal impressions. The only critical question is whether “new urbanism”‘s environmental benefits are supported by reasonable statistical studies. My own inclination is to say yes because this the mode in which the scarcity of land has pushed Europe. In just about all German and Dutch urban areas that I inhabited and visited, big box stores are scarce, public transportation is superb, and people walk and ride their bicycles a lot. And, their carbon footprints are dramatically lower than the average American one.

    At least, that’s what the aggregate statistics show.

    • The average Amrican’s carbon footprint is twice the average European footprint, but that’s not because of big box stores. Rather, we live in bigger houses, drive more and bigger cars more often, and generally waste more energy because it’s cheaper here relative to income. Taxes on energy are lower, and as a producing nation, we subsidize fossil fuels to the tune of billions of dollars each year.

      I have no argument with “new urbanism.” I myself wouldn’t live there– my urban days are done. I live in the country and now produce food that others eat (goat cheese). Let us never forget that SOMEONE has to grow the food we eat.

      Within an urban environment (and outside it), there are a number of options for retailing. In an environment where most consumers DO own and drive automobiles, big box stores make sense. They require less travel by consumers as well as less resources for what they sell.

      OTOH, if you’re riding public transportation or walking, it’s hard to carry a case of paper towels, a case of TP, and a case of soup. In THAT environment, it probably makes environmental sense to distribute the same goods to local vendors– even though the distribution requires more resources, it makes possible shopping without automobiles which I suspect would be a greater gain. You can see the difference in urban structure between Los Angeles, which has very little practical mass transit making a car necessary for most people, and San Francisco or New York, in which a car is a liability.

      In rural and semi-rural areas (where your food comes from), mass transit is just plain impractical. So big box stores are an environmentally better choice where they can be supported.

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