Why Business is Key to Livability

January 10, 2014 at 5:50 am CST

“Urbanists put way too little thought into business climate,” Aaron Renn wrote in a recent post on his blog. He was writing about the Sriracha brand hot sauce and a recent case in California that pitted the interests of small business against residents with state regulators in between.

The regulation portion of that is key. Zoning comes up more and more in discussion of livability and place making. Emily Talen , a member of our advisory board , has written books on the topic and helped bring regulation into the conversation as editor of the updated Charter for the New Urbanism . In livability circles the issues are often surrounded by the right mix and density of housing, affordability and transportation.

But it should also include balancing the business climate and the residential climate. After all, that’s why zoning became necessary in the first place: Factories and housing were poor neighbors and public health was at stake.

As we talk about downtown revitalization, mixed-use residential/commercial development and retrofitting sprawling malls into “walkable urban” spaces, shouldn’t we also be talking about finding the right mixes of business and services to weave in? Here are two examples of the impact businesses can have on their communities.

First, I recently visited Santa Rosa, Calif. , one of our top 100 best places to live . I met with Mayor Scott Bartley, and he told me about a change the city council made in recent years to allow tasting rooms downtown. It seems there had been a regulation on the books for decades forbidding them, but also that no one had asked for it to be changed. When the matter was brought up, the city agreed to change the rule. After all, Santa Rosa is the seat of Sonoma County in the heart of California’s wine country. Now tasting rooms like Ancient Oaks and Cellars of Sonoma have helped breathe new life into the downtown areas and serve as an anchor – along with the Russian River Brewing Co. – for a growing food and drink culture in town.

On the flip side, a recent Chicago Tribune article looked at how different communities had dealt with the loss of the Borders bookstore chain, which left a large and visible vacancy in many retail districts. Many communities still have yet to lease these spaces – three years later. Others have found new tenants, like grocery stores, that provide even more foot traffic to these important blocks.

In both cases, it’s easy to see how the business climate impacts the livability of a community both for good and ill. You often hear communities talk about creating a great place to live in hopes of attracting business and workers. But it works both ways. Attracting the right kind of businesses can also attract workers and increase the quality of life for residents.

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