Why the City Can’t 'Just Put a Trader Joe’s There'

The flawed logic behind an all-too-common planning misconception.

2 minute read

October 23, 2022, 7:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction

Trader Joe's building with "Coming Soon" and "Now Hiring" banners

Sadie Mantell / Trader Joe's store

Writing in Strong Towns, Daniel Herriges warns against a common style of public comment that fails to grasp the realities of how development decisions are made. Herriges illustrates this genre of uninformed, self-serving comments as “The city should put a Trader Joe's there.”

As Herriges explains, “The reason the city can’t put a Trader Joe's there is because the city doesn't make that decision at all.” The process involves many more parties, such as the landowner and Trader Joe’s. And while rezoning processes often garner public attention, “it’s very rare that a local government actively recruits a specific business to occupy a site, let alone when that site itself is private property.”

While such complaints can largely be attributed to “simple ignorance,” Herriges writes, “there’s something deeper going on: a flaw in the basic mental model that people use to describe how their neighborhood takes shape.”

For Herriges, the problem rests in part on the assumption that there is a master planner or designer making decisions about how a city grows, even if that planner is some vague version of “the community” or “the city.” But most decisions are made by many individuals and entities with often disparate interests.

Ultimately, Herriges encourages people invested in the future of their communities to think about the specifics of what “we” and “they” mean in the urban planning and development context, what concrete outcomes they want to see, and how decisions about those outcomes are actually made.

Monday, October 17, 2022 in Strong Towns

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