city life-compressed

Photo: Simon & His Camera/Flickr

Customer-facing businesses are key to neighborhood vitality, argues City Observatory. To prove that point, the Portland-based think tank has created the Storefront Index, an interactive tool that maps everyday retail and service operations.

So far, City Observatory has used the Storefront Index to create maps of the 51 largest metropolitan areas in the US, from Seattle to Dallas to New York. Users can look at their chosen area from a distance, or zero in on specific neighborhoods to see how businesses are clustered at the street level.

The company’s findings are interesting, though perhaps unsurprising: areas with dense concentrations of customer-facing businesses — such as movie theaters, bookstores and restaurants — are more economically healthy than those with fewer of these businesses. They’re also more desirable places to live.

A quick look at some of City Observatory’s maps illustrates those points. For example, consider the map below of Manhattan. Each dot represents some type of consumer-facing business, and within the three-mile radius represented, there are 9,905 of them — much higher than the median of 850.

manhattan city observatory

Image of Manhattan: City Observatory

The heart of Portland, also a popular place to live, looks similar when laid out using City Observatory’s software. In all, about 1,700 customer-facing businesses are located within the three-mile radius shown in the map below.

portland city obervatory

Image of Portland: City Observatory

Detroit, currently a much less desirable place to live, provides a stark contrast. Within the three-mile radius shown in the map below there are less than 450 customer-facing businesses. St. Louis and Oklahoma City are also on the low end of the scale.

detroit city observatory

Image of Detroit: City Observatory

While the Storefront Index is fun to play around with, City Observatory hopes that urbanists and city planners will use it as a community-building tool, or to track changes in neighborhoods over time.

“The advantages that cities provide to consumers in offering a range of different consumption alternatives provide convenience and measurable economic value for consumers, especially time-stressed households. Dense, diverse, interesting shopping districts are a hallmark of vibrant cities,” City Observatory concludes.

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