So, my wife and I visited my mother-in-law in Columbus, Ohio, last weekend, and what a town! I've got to say I was surprised. I assumed that it was an industrial, Rust Belt city past its prime, but it's actually a vibrant, big city with a rich history. There are several historic, ethnic enclaves. My mother-in-law lives in German Village which was incredible.
The most eye-opening part of the visit, though, was that all of the historic neighborhoods were delightfully mixed-use zoning districts. So, on the same blocks as homes were restaurants, boutiques, hair salons, wine/beer stores, and a number of other businesses. We enjoyed a similar situation recently in Savannah, Georgia. There was a time not terribly long ago when most neighborhoods in the United States were like this. I remember hearing stories from my grandfather about my hometown (Saint Joseph, Michigan) that evidenced this. His home was a block away from the neighborhood tavern. The house where I grew up was a block away from a restaurant. Even when I grew up there, we were only a block away from a small grocery/convenience story, a glass store, a hair salon, and an ice cream parlor.
Why aren't more (any?) communities designed this way today? Why did we give up on this model? My guess is that property values pushed the businesses out. The most desirable places to live in any give location tend to end up being the most expensive. If one's goal is to profit from a business, keeping his overhead low is important. Two ways to do this are to pay less for the property and to pay lower taxes. Moving to a nonresidential location (usually on the margins of a community) is a quick way to do this.
Of course, locating one's business on the margins of a community is only possible if those in the community have a means to travel to the location. For generations, travel was expensive and inconvenient, thus requiring mixed zoning. Once the automobile took root as part of American culture post-WWII, it became not only possible but desirable for businesses to move further from people's homes.
So what? you might ask. Well, there have been some unintended consequences. First, businesses are places where people build community spirit. A drink at the local pub, dinner at the local restaurant, and shopping at the local grocery are all opportunities for neighbors to interact and to generate solidarity. Second, whereas owning a car was not necessary in a place where one can walk to the store, cars suddenly become essential once local businesses are no longer local. We often associate car culture with independence; however, we know that our cars are actually about dependency on oil and the socio-political relations required to procure a ready and cheap supply of the black stuff. We also know that cars cause a number of environmental problems from global warming to oil spills. They are also dangerous. If we can find ways to limit their use, we'll all be better off in a number of ways.
So, how might we recapture some of this magic? The best way is through local political action. Zoning laws and urban planning don't need to be left to chance. If we want business in our neighborhoods, we need to legalize it and incentivize it.
And, any town with a "Brewery District" wins high marks from me on principle alone! Props to Columbus.
PS - If any of my academic readers (Do I have readers?) know of good books or articles on the topic, please pass them on.