What makes a community? It's an interesting question that urban planners have been grappling with since time immemorial. In the process, they have come up with no end of big new ideas meant to revolutionize the urban landscape and inject a bit of that vibrancy back into our neighborhoods. The more I think about it though, the more I realize that nothing in the vast spectrum of urban planning theories can make a community. Rather, a community is something that is natural and grows from the interactions of people. The best that a planner can hope to do is to lay the groundwork and provide the tools to help that community grow.
That said, I recently read about a new program in Newark that might actually help to make a difference. They are launching a "retail incubation" program as an attempt to help locally owned small businesses get off the ground and establish a market. The idea is to develop a retail space in downtown Newark for ten to twelve small businesses to sell their wares and develop sustainable demand for their services. The spaces would be rented at below market rates and contain pooled resources and equipment for the struggling business owners to use in setting up their shops. When a company successfully develops a market and establishes itself, the company moves out to a normal retail space.
Seattle currently has a Biotech incubator, aptly named Accelerator, in Eastlake. This program has successfully launched several small Biotech companies locally and will certainly contribute immensely to the economy of the city. Without a doubt though, the city could also use a retail incubator much like Newark's. Helping to establish new retail outlets is a great way of providing source of entrepreneurship in the city and of bringing in a fresh crop of business owners to become engaged in their community.
Plus, a successful retail incubation program would help to develop original shops unique to our neighborhoods creating that unqiue sense of place that is so often lost in the suburban sprawl that has spread across this great nation like a cancerous tumor. In time, it would also ensure that all those mixed use retail-condo projects will have a healthy retail community to fill their brand new store fronts.