holidays, musings., places., public spaces, travels
Comments 3

ode to retail: holiday shopping

Hi Friends.  I’ve been away.  What have I been doing?

Shopping!  Seriously.  Well, kindof.  It was the holidays, after all.  And while I was in New York strolling very quickly along Fifth Avenue trying desperately to get out of the ungodly cold, I got to thinking about retail and how important it is for our experience of the urban environment.  Many people, after all, only really go to a major urban center in order to shop, or perhaps to take in a cultural experience like a Broadway show.  Storefronts are essential for your experience of place, too.  Built form aside, compare the experience of Fifth Avenue to a great spot in Brooklyn that I visited the next day:


Fifth Avenue

You get the idea.  Anyway, it seems to me that the experience of retail, of shopping, is something that urbanists aren’t talking about much these days.  Sure, we’ve decided that we hate the car-favoring, public-excluding, indoor mass-market shopping mall, and we think that ground floor retail is the solution to all of our street vibrancy problems, but what exactly happens in a store?  How do we shop?  Who shops?  Where?

In other countries, people shop differently.  Many people buy clothing and household goods, in addition to food, at outdoor markets.  Above is a market in Mapusa, Goa, India.  Below is a tourist-oriented market, about 30 Indian driving minutes away from Mapusa.

Like the difference between my street in Brooklyn and 5th Avenue, the shopping experiences here, while the same along many categories (outdoor v. main street shopping, rough geographic and cultural context, what is being sold), are really, truly different.  Anjuna market sells exoticism; it is a tourist product and a manufactured experience, even as the goods it sells are “authentic.”  Mapusa market is also visited by tourists, but is predominately a place that sells everyday clothing, cleaning supplies, and perishable groceries, hardly the stuff of vacation keepsakes.  We signal who we are and who we want our customers to be by crafting very targeted shopping experiences; these shopping experiences shape our physical environment.  Particularly in a service economy, what else, really, do we do during the day in a city, if it’s not working or shopping?

Ok, so this isn’t an especially groundbreaking post.  People shop, so shopping is a big part of the urban experience, and as such different kinds of retail venues characterize and are characterized by specific built forms, community attributes, etc.  But one of the things I’m trying to do here, and always, is to call attention to the ostensibly mundane, small details of city life that as urbanists and residents we must appreciate and harness.  Thinking about retail isn’t just important on Fifth Avenue: it’s one of the biggest ways we’re trying to revitalize main streets, bring foot traffic to vacant central business districts, and revitalize our economy.  That’s no small thing!

Companion post to this will be going up tomorrow, on holiday decorations.  Like on Fifth Avenue, the holidays are a time when retail’s impact on the civic realm and the urban environment becomes especially tangible.  Holiday decorations, and its wonderful relatives, holiday markets, enliven streets and create almost a temporary public art experience in the way it can transform the use and appearance of a public place.  Get excited.




  1. Jonathan R says

    What’s so enlivening about booths selling junk? I think holiday markets take space away from everyone else. I wouldn’t mind so much if they closed the streets down and puts market in them, but having the markets in the parks or on sidewalks takes away precious open space and replaces it with noise and visual pollution.

    • Diana Limbach says

      Hi Jonathan,
      I think that’s an important point. I suppose I am just so thirsty for something unexpected to *ever* happen on my streets, that I welcome even what often turns out, yes, to be a disappointing commercial holiday market. But I don’t think that means that quantity, or simply existence, is sufficient for market success. However, I would contend that “noise and visual pollution,” to a point, is something that many urban residents value in city life.

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