Treehugger has long been ambivalent about Black Friday and often promoted Buy Nothing Day in reaction to the orgy of consumption. I was never a fan of either concept, as all my kids and their spouses work in small service businesses, mongering cheese or pulling espressos.
That’s one of the reasons I got so excited about Small Business Saturday, founded in 2010 by American Express and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. As Stephanie Meeks of the National Trust noted: “When we invest in small businesses, we are investing in Main Streets—the places that give our towns and cities a unique sense of place.”
The National Trust has moved on, but there are many other reasons to support the small businesses that are the backbone of our Main Streets. One of the main ones is that they are key to the development of the 15-minute city, a concept that is key to fighting climate change and recovering from Covid-19.
The 15-minute city was the brainchild of Carlos Moreno, a professor at the Panthéon Sorbonne University in France, but it really is a catchy name for what everybody did before the era of big cars and big box stores. It is a timely repackaging of Jane Jacobs, New Urbanism, and Main Street Historicism, in which daily necessities are within a 15-minute reach on foot or by bike.
But it is more relevant than ever. As the C-40 mayors explain: “A successful 15-minute neighborhood is ‘complete’ with core services and amenities that residents can easily walk or cycle to. This includes community-scale education and healthcare, essential retail like grocery shops and pharmacies, parks for recreation, working spaces, and more.”
A well-developed 15-minute city can dramatically reduce carbon emissions by getting people out of cars, both for shopping and for employment. As more people work from home or from neighborhood co-working spots, they need the amenities, the shopping, the restaurants—we have even noted that a 15-minute city needs a good bar.
But while focusing on Small Business Saturday and local retail, let’s not lose sight of what big business is trying to do in 15 minutes. According to Adam Chandler in The Atlantic, venture capitalists have sunk $9.7 Billion into hyper-fast delivery companies in the last year alone. “Featuring very start-up-y names—Gopuff, Jokr, Gorillas, Getir—these companies rely on their own private neighborhood supermarkets (ominously called “dark stores”), which allows them to ferry goods and groceries far quicker than bigger players such as Amazon Fresh and FreshDirect,” wrote Chander, who also noted that these services would be competing with the local businesses.
According to Chandler: “In retail as in life, just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Getting groceries at warp speed comes with very real consequences. There’s the potential safety hazard for workers and pedestrians in an already dangerous industry, or the reality that these start-ups, many of which require smartphones, aren’t terribly democratic compared with the bodegas and corner stores they may someday replace.”
Amazon isn’t going to miss this market and is refining its drone delivery system, where they fly up to seven and a half miles round trip and then drop a package up to 12 feet to the ground. Amazon sees this as a solution to the problem: “How do you get items to customers quickly, cost-effectively, and—most importantly—safely, in less than an hour?”
Seriously, it is hard enough for small businesses to survive in cities with high taxes and rents, pandemics, supply chain disruptions, competition from online shopping, and now drones. When surely, what we really want, is what the C40 cities mayor’s agenda for a green and just recovery wants: “sustainable, efficient and safe mass transit systems that keep our cities moving and our economies running, while leaving our streets car-free, air clean and skies blue.All residents will live in ’15-minute cities’, where shops, workspaces and essential services are easily reached within a short cycle or walk, surrounded by plenty of green spaces where they can relax, exercise and play. ”
This is why “shop small,” and Small Business Saturday are so much more than just an American Express promotion. It’s about rethinking how we build and maintain healthier, low-carbon cities. It’s about creating jobs for our kids in our communities. It is about a much bigger picture of how we want to live.
So go support Small Business Saturday … and keep doing it all year long.