Shops and Beggars

One of the biggest challenges (some say pitfalls) of the urban planning profession is that it is not based on “hard science”. There is no formula that can promise great places, and further, there is not even one widespread definition of what great places are. If someone offers you a complete, provable way to build a popular new street - run away! However, I don’t see it as a problem, because when someone sees a great street, one just knows it. It’s a feeling, there is no sign at the entrance noting: “This street is scientifically proven to be great”.

Despite the lack of formulas, successful streets do share some similarities. When I’m walking in cities, I constantly look around for common factors that make streets great. Some features repeat themselves, and we can learn from them for future plans. What should the buildings look like? What about the sidewalks? What about the bicycle lanes? When it comes to retail streets, although everyone is different, I found two elements that tend to repeat themselves.  When they exist simultaneously, they can guarantee that I’m at a successful place. What are those elements? Shops and beggars.

Wait, don’t raise your eyebrows. Let me explain.

There are, of course, many factors that make a great commercial street, and I guess we all agree that the presence of shops is one of them. Shops provide the colorfulness, interest, variety, and most important, a reason to come over. They help transform a street from a road that cars drive through into a destination.

Empty shops, no people, no beggars. Sollentuna near Stockholm. Picture by Lior Steinberg.

But we all know retail streets that are full of shops but are still a failure. Shops are  prerequisite, they don’t promise success. The presence of beggars, however, is an indicator for success. When retail streets do succeed, they attract many passerbyes, which in turn attract beggars. Beggars can be found in most of the successful streets I’ve seen. Why is that? It’s because beggars, just like store owners, know that the most important thing for a shop  is constant flow of people. If the shops are successful, the beggars also have more clients.

Here comes the clarification. I don’t claim that the phenomenon of homeless people and beggars is good for our cities. Not at all! I hope that the sight of the unfortunate - begging for money, while other street users are doing everything they can to avoid eye contact - will be solved. But till then I will keep looking for my two indicators: shops and beggars.

Written by Lior Steinberg. Follow him on Twitter and .