(Unedited) Podcast Transcript 328: Street Commerce

April 8, 2021

This week we’re joined by Professor Andres Sevtsuk, professor of Urban Science at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning to talk about his book Street Commerce: Creating More Vibrant Urban Sidewalks. We chat the importance of location in urban retail, the city factors that might determine a store’s success, and why urban retail should be studied more in planning school.

For the full (at the moment unedited) transcript, see below.

Jeff Wood (1m 32s):
Well, Andres Sevtsuk, welcome to the talking headways podcast. Thanks for having me well, thanks for being here before we get started. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? Sure.

Andres Sevtsuk (1m 43s):
I teach at the department of urban studies and planning at MIT. I lead a research group there as well called city forum lab, and I’m an urban planner and urban designer by training.

Jeff Wood (1m 54s):
How did you get into planning? Were you a little kid? Were you older? What was the timeframe when you got into it? I think,

Andres Sevtsuk (2m 0s):
Okay. I got into it actually during graduate school. I’m an architect by undergrad training and I worked as a designer architect for a while. I did my undergrad actually in France and as I studied more about the built environment I got, I suppose I just got more and more fascinated by topics that are urban planning in nature that go beyond the scale of individual buildings or individual clients and deal with really complex social issues and become social science. And I guess I always had a fascination with kind of addressing more complex problems and that’s how it went.

Jeff Wood (2m 38s):
And then you wrote this book street commerce. How did you get into the retail environment? Like what brought you into that world?

Andres Sevtsuk (2m 43s):
I wrote a dissertation some years ago about the location patterns of stores, service amenities, and food providers. And it just seemed one of those topics that we all encounter. It’s so ubiquitous, it’s one, the most prominent interfaces to city life. For those of us who live in cities yet, I didn’t know of a good book on the topic. It’s something that many planners have talked about, but not necessarily centered their whole discourse or focus on it. You know, all the way from the Chicago school of sociology in their early 20th century, through Jane Jacobs, through many urban designers and planners, that idea of amenities on city streets and how they impact socially interaction, how they may impact local economies or urban sustainability.

Andres Sevtsuk (3m 37s):
It’s a topic that comes up fairly frequently yet has not been, I think, brought together very much in a, in a sort of single book or a single treatment. So what I tried to do is take these interests that are part personal part professional because of field of planning and synthesize them in one place.

Jeff Wood (3m 56s):
Well, you mentioned the personal, you know, you talk about in the start of the book, living in London and walking around, and it’s definitely a great retail environment. What was your experience with cities previously in terms of how you embrace them or how you experienced them?

Andres Sevtsuk (4m 9s):
Quite a few different environments and always loved cities and lived in cities. I never lived in a countryside other than, you know, for an extended weekend or summer camp. So I grew up in Estonia. That’s where I’m from. I grew up in a midsize, I guess in American sense, it’s a small town, but in a, you know, a fairly dense urban environment with full of apartment buildings. And then I lived in talent, the capital of Estonia when I started my studies and then things took their own path. I ended up doing my undergrad in France and I lived in Paris for three and a half years. That’s sort of a hyper urban experience, I guess, from there, I ended up in Boston for grad school, which is a very different kind of urban experience, which may look somewhat European, but actually works entirely different from European cities.

Andres Sevtsuk (4m 56s):
And then somehow life ended up taking me to Singapore to start a teaching job there in one of the MIT affiliated universities in the world. And Singapore is a, yet another completely different context. And then I ended up spending some time in London after that. So lived in quite a few different cities and always, I love city life. I live the vibrancy and the diversity and sort of cultural learning that cities provide. And I think this has helped feed that interest to local commerce. I mean, it’s one of the favorite things to do is in a new city kind of just poke into the stores and see what they sell and what they do and what they tell you about the city. And, you know, especially locally owned smaller stores that are not necessarily the chains you find anywhere else in the world.

Jeff Wood (5m 39s):
Do you have a favorite city of those that you’ve lived in? Or can you not pick one?

Andres Sevtsuk (5m 44s):
It’s hard. I get that question quite a lot actually, but you know, it’s really, I, I do love London apart, why I started to vote by describing London for many reasons, but yeah, different cities have their different advantages. London’s great because it really has historically put high streets at the center of its kind of urban agenda. It has so many different programs for supporting high streets and they become not just places of convenience and getting your errands run, but they’re really the centers of life. Every neighborhood has its own high street and it’s kind of the whole city is structured around those.

Jeff Wood (6m 17s):
So you talked about the educational environment. I’m curious why you think that urban commerce isn’t discussed as much in planning schools or in kind of an educational environment.

Andres Sevtsuk (6m 26s):
There are a couple of reasons. I believe one is that urban planning in the United States has really come to focus on what we call market failures, areas of development that we believe private capitalists markets cannot take care of themselves. So for instance, public transport, education, housing, public space and streets are things that the private sector has no incentive to develop on its own because the kind of benefits bleed out to everybody. It’s hard to monetize them. It has traditionally, I think being believed that street commerce or commercial activities are something that the private sector takes care of, that we don’t necessarily need to worry about very much as planners as you know, stewards off the public interests.

Andres Sevtsuk (7m 12s):
And I actually have come to believe that that is not entirely the case. There is a whole lot that cities can do to support street commerce, and that’s not an outcome of pure market forces. So that’s reason number one and reason. Number two, I think urban economics and retail economics in particular has developed quite a bit of writing about our stores, but almost all of that literature has focused on shopping centers and shopping centers have been this sort of creation of the 20th century. That completely revolutionized how we get stuff in the city. And there is quite a bit of literature in science, around shopping centers about their location, about how they work, but fundamentally shopping centers are different animals from urban diverse, fragmented street commerce.

Jeff Wood (8m 4s):
Yeah, that was a really fascinating part of the book where you talked a little bit about shopping centers, but also the difference between the two and how much, you know, analysis went into looking at the urban retail environment. It was interesting to think about how places cluster and also the distances people would walk in, et cetera. I mean, you have a lot of analysis in the book. Why is the focus so much in the U S at least on these suburban centers? Is it just because we had this kind of movement that never backed down, whereas other places like the Netherlands and Copenhagen and all of those places outside of the U S you know, kind of reversed tack in, in the sixties and seventies?

Andres Sevtsuk (8m 38s):
Yeah, I, I do think it in part it’s perhaps because of the shopping center is considered a sort of American invention and something that has been exported to the world over, but at the same time, they, there still are very powerful, private interests that are in shopping centers. They’re far from gone. I do mention in the book that we have sort of given up building the traditional shopping center as of the last decade or decade and a half, we don’t do a whole lot of this sort of introverted atrium centered shopping center with massive parking lots around the new era. Shopping center looks quite different. It actually looks more often urban, but nevertheless, the distinguishing feature of shopping centers is that it is a coordinated, centrally managed cluster.

Andres Sevtsuk (9m 20s):
And there are very powerful, large interest around that the international council for shopping centers and various organizations that pooled together, developers, retailers has created a whole wave of interests around the sort of benefits that shopping centers have brought in. And I think back to this notion that platters have not really, I mean, there is a sizeable literature on main streets, but not necessarily from the perspective of trying to understand the economics of how the uses behind the walls and the main street, the services that retailers of food places, how they work, and it’s sort of falling between the cracks, I think.

Andres Sevtsuk (10m 1s):
And, you know, the book is in a sense timely because it’s happening. Cities are turning back towards downtown main streets and community streets are a bigger topic again, because population preferences have shifted, but it’s simply not being a central concern. I think for planners.

Jeff Wood (10m 20s):
Yeah, though it still comes up. I mean, I I’ve often gone into cities and I mean, you mentioned the Olympics in London in 2012, I was there. And one of the things that I did that I do when I go to bigger cities, because there’s these shops that, you know, can basically cover the whole city is I look for antique maps, mostly of streetcar lines, mostly of stuff happening between 1880 and 1920. But you can’t find those maps or map stores necessarily unless you have a big enough kind of catchment area. And in the book, you talk a little bit about this taxidermy shop, right? The place with that, you know, you do know why it has a business because it has such a large catchment area, but that shop versus food and retail is such a different animal. I’m curious how you came up with the discussion about why certain shops work, why certain shops don’t work.

Andres Sevtsuk (11m 1s):
Yeah. So this goes to the heart of this is theory of urban retail Cashman area is this taxidermy store that’s called get stuffed with something that I’ve passed on the street on Essex road, posted where I lived and, you know, you can’t help, but wonder how many people will go and buy a stuffed full-scale taxidermy product. I mean, I certainly never have. And so it’s one of the, probably the rarest purchased items in cities, but I think it’s a great store to illustrate the point that if you look around cities and just kind of anecdotally try to detect what is on city streets, how often do we see a Baker, or how often did we see a liquor store?

Andres Sevtsuk (11m 43s):
How often do you see a convenience store speaks directly to one of the primary kind of economic criteria that defines how much street commerce of a particular type there is that is frequency of purchases. The more frequent we buy something, the more of that store we generally see, and that’s not the only criteria. There are other intermediary factors that shape the density of stores, but that’s a big one for me finding the density of stores. So for instance, coffee shops or bakeries or convenience stores or things that a lot of people visit almost daily, and we see them a whole lot and taxidermy store that gets stuffed store is really the opposite end of the extreme.

Andres Sevtsuk (12m 27s):
It’s so rare that you may have one in an entire metropolitan region for those kinds of things. Walter, Chris Tyler, the German geographer, who first defined this theory of central places in the 1930s. I mean, he already conceptualized this idea of catchment areas and overlapping catchment areas, and basically argued that bigger settlements, bigger what he called central places. But you can sort of substitute that for cities will have these rear stores because they simply demand an enormous catchment area to stay afloat. And I think the same goes for other specialized goods. And that’s one of the fascinating things about big cities. If you go to cities like Hong Kong or LA you’ll find these highly specialized clusters of something that is never found in a small town.

Andres Sevtsuk (13m 10s):
And that’s very much why, because they require such huge catchment areas to stay around.

Jeff Wood (13m 16s):
Yeah. Antique maps shops. Well, yeah, you talk about purchase frequency. There’s fixed costs, transportation costs, customer density. There’s all kinds of factors that go into it. But you also did an analysis of the size of cities and how many stores the cities could handle. And it was interesting to read that some places have more than the number, and it’s actually pretty correlated in terms of the metropolitan population, but some places are different. I mean, you have Myrtle beach, which you mentioned, and even pastoral bliss, which have tourists destinations. And so they’re going to have more shops, but then you have other places that have less shops. Were you surprised to see that there was a basic correlation between the size of a metropolitan area and the amount of stores that actually each city had and that they kind of diminished as the city got larger?

Andres Sevtsuk (14m 0s):
I would actually say that, you know, the fact that the size of a Metro area and how many stores it can handle is a fairly intuitive finding, right? Most people would say, okay, well, that makes a lot of sense. But what was surprising was maybe it trifecta of several systemic, predictable aspects to the retail pattern in cities. I mean, the fact that there is a predictable amount of stores, and if you know the size of the Metro area, you can fairly accurately guess how many shops it’ll have is the first of those factors. Second is the sort of distribution that follows zips flaw, which is this sort of linguistic law, but it’s a Perez in almost every domain of science that things are exponentially distributed, that there’s very few large clusters and then more middle scale clusters.

Andres Sevtsuk (14m 45s):
And then a whole lot of small ones. It turns out that if you take that number of stores, that the metropolitan population and put them into a zips flow pattern, you can also fairly, well guess how many clusters or what size you’ll have. So the distribution is fairly regular. And furthermore, there is evidence that the sort of spacing between those clusters is fairly predictable too. And these three factors together are somewhat surprising together that there’s actually a whole lot of predictability to the retail landscape of the city, but it’s somewhat of a contradiction that if I go to a new town that I’ve never been in, I think of the stores and the streets, I walk as the unique face of that city.

Andres Sevtsuk (15m 29s):
So on the one hand, I think of cities by their streets and what we see along these streets. And that’s the unique characteristic that in my mind, and my memory will define what that place is, but at the same time, it appears so predictable. So the book also tries to situate itself in that space between the predictability and the uniqueness of retail clusters and essentially investigates, what are the leavers? What are the parameters that planners can influence at all? I mean, in part it’s the street commerce as a result of economic forces, densities and costs and transportation, et cetera. But at the same time, there’s plenty that CDs can do what policymakers can do.

Andres Sevtsuk (16m 12s):
And that’s, I think the really interesting buffer zones between this science of it and the art of it, you know, those examples you’ve mentioned also Passaro role-plays and Myrtle beach. Those are in particular tourist sites, but there are other factors that make cities punch far above, or also far below the kind of trendline, for instance, the town where I work in Cambridge, Massachusetts has a whole lot more restaurants than you would think. And it’s because the demographics, the incomes are higher, but there’s also a whole lot of people who like to die now and are perhaps more international than the average town into the United States. And that benefits the restaurant, the economy, and in some towns you’ll have less than you would expect by the size of the town.

Andres Sevtsuk (16m 56s):
And in those cases, oftentimes the commerce has concentrated into very few big providers like a single shopping center or something like that. And I th I find those really interesting that space between the sort of predictable pattern and that, which is a result of local deliberate efforts.

Jeff Wood (17m 14s):
What are some of those local deliberate efforts? Because we often see places that just kind of allow commerce to happen. They believe in the visible hand of the market, et cetera, capitalism generally, but there’s so much stuff you can do as a city to kind of influence how retail actually works in the city and whether it’s beneficial to people or whether the clusters actually work or not.

Andres Sevtsuk (17m 35s):
Yeah. I mean, the ways in which cities and influence that pattern actually are really diverse and why, and raging at the macro level. I think density is one of those things that truly influences the kind of city you get in terms of its retail, denser cities produce shorter trips. And on average, you have a lot of things close by. So people tend to walk more rather than drive and that produces. And in turn a find a grain of stores along streets in cities that are lower density and car oriented general, you end up with large shopping centers that absorb most of the purchasing power in the region. So density and also investments into public transport are some obvious, like big ticket things that really shaped the retail landscape of the city, but at the smaller level, even at the sort of scale of individual streets or main streets, there’s other things like investments into the public space along the street goes a long way on bringing people out and equipping streets with things that no store alone can provide like landscaping, like better sidewalks and pavers, like good streets, furniture, decent sort of arrival mechanisms like bike parking or street parking and things that enable people to get there.

Andres Sevtsuk (18m 50s):
And then I think like the third or most microscopic scale that cities can really get directly involved with is providing policies and incentives. So I decided to book some pretty unusual examples for instance, from London, where a borough of Hackney has gone in as a public sector player and bought up vacant storefronts and then subleased it to the kinds of stores they think that should be there. So this is taking a really active role on behalf of government to say, we think that this cluster would really benefit, let’s say from a grocery store, well, none of the landlords are willing to give it a good lease. So the grocery stores haven’t come, the area may be too pricey, or for some other reasons they can’t come in.

Andres Sevtsuk (19m 34s):
So we’re going to maybe take it even a hit. We might lose some money in the process, but we think this is good public policy. We’ll put into store in the context of Boston and close to where I am. You’ll have big institutional players who do exactly that. So for instance, the universities will own a lot of real estate and they will oftentimes lease out some space at bargain rates just to get certain types of businesses in which benefits everyone. And this is touching upon this idea that coordination can go a very long way in, in making good cluster work. And that’s the key benefit that shopping centers have in street corners usually doesn’t have,

Jeff Wood (20m 12s):
Yeah, the central management, that’s something that you brought up about the shopping centers, shopping malls was that they have kind of one overarching owner, and then they try to sort the stores inside based on, you know, their tenant mix. And you have the anchors at each side, which bring in the traffic and then they’ll rent out stores based on, you know, whether they think it’s something that they need that is of interest, but maybe they’ll give it to the store for a lower price. So cities can do that exact same thing. And it’s interesting to think about, you know, when you mentioned this in the book too, is how Amazon is doing this as well, basically one central management for everything. And it creates this kind of economy of scale that can’t be kind of by individual stores in the city, which means cities have an even more important role if they want to preserve their retail establishes.

Andres Sevtsuk (20m 55s):
That’s absolutely true. Yeah. You know, one way of looking at Amazon is, is over the next generation of the shopping center where it’s extremely centralized and the entire ecosystem that falls under one big owner. Right? I think one of the key points I try to make in the book, and I particularly go and talk about this one example from Tallinn, this called the daily skeevy or brick center, and it’s an urban cluster and it works in some ways like a shopping center, but it flips the model upside down. So what, maybe I’ll just describe briefly what that example entails. So in a typical shopping center, just as you described right now, the anchors are the highly subsidized units.

Andres Sevtsuk (21m 37s):
They are thought that bring in the foot traffic and the intermediate restores where the highest foot traffic is inside the mall is where the rents are the highest, and that’s where all the profits are made for the shopping center. Now, this thing has given a center or brick center in Kalin, did the opposite. It subsidized a lot of small operators and mostly small creative businesses and created this sort of really desirable and active sense to this cluster. That’s in the former industrial complex, close to the city center. And it became such a desirable destination that larger companies wanting to join in because it had a very strong sort of location value.

Andres Sevtsuk (22m 19s):
And that’s what the, what the management did is they started charging these established large companies, top dollar rents, and that’s where their profit comes. So, so in a way, it proves that you don’t have to use the sort of 20th century shopping center model to revitalize urban street commerce either. It doesn’t mean that we need to put big box stores in the city centers to get the traffic in the same logic could apply to a whole cluster of small stores. And indeed that’s something that’s been missing. I think oftentimes when municipality is subsidized in all sorts of forms, retail, and it’s oftentimes through infrastructure or tax breaks or tax incentives and so forth, almost always those incentives have gone to large big box stores.

Andres Sevtsuk (23m 2s):
And, you know, that’s, I think one of the challenges we have ahead of us for the 21st century is to rethink that and see how we can actually subsidize the kinds of things we want to have. And I I’d argue that it’s oftentimes more beneficial to pride them, do her in lots of small local stores that define a place and that people love, and then clip that sort of subsidies models on its head.

Jeff Wood (23m 24s):
A really good point. We talking a lot about movement of larger companies and cities and the subsidies that they’re given Amazon HQ two was a big discussion over the last two years or so. But in the book you mentioned how much money kind of comes back to the local economy. If people spend money in these more local stores, you said 45 cents comes back to the community in local stores versus 13 per dollar in chain stores, which means, it says to me that, you know, all this subsidy of these larger big box stores is actually kind of damaging to the economy. It might be an initial boost from, you know, investing in these places and the jobs that they have right away, but over the longterm, the smaller community stores and the local places that people love are the ones that we should be investing in.

Jeff Wood (24m 6s):
So I like your point. It’s harder work, obviously. I mean, it’s easier to give money to one company and sign the papers for one company that it is for, you know, a hundred local stores, but it seems like it’s totally worth the work if you put it in.

Andres Sevtsuk (24m 18s):
Absolutely. And that’s, that’s exactly right. And I think you’re also right, that that’s the key reason this is happening not frequently is that politicians like to sort of have one big achievement, one big Walmart brought into the town and that will end up in the mainstream news and be covered in many places. But it’s a much bigger job to work constantly with, with smaller renders and have more locally oriented stores doored in and subsidize it, or at least if not subsidized, that should sort of level that playing field and not subsidize the big box store and that’s harder work, but it’s a much greater payoff. And I think not just economically, yes, there are studies that show that locally owned stores tend to procure more from local sub vendors and get their services and inputs, and even down to furniture or deliveries or the transportation, they hire more from local companies.

Andres Sevtsuk (25m 10s):
Right. And I see that every day, I mean, here in the Boston area, local companies certainly interact more with other local companies. And that network is really impressive. So there’s an economic benefit, but beyond the economics, I think it just produces a whole lot of great things for cities, right? We all like the sort of diversity on city streets. And I tried to make the point in the book at multiple locations that it’s also at an ecological argument that the more businesses we can walk to in the city, the more we can address CO2 emissions and urban energy consumption because something like two thirds of all trips in cities are non-work trips. So only about a third is the routine travel to the office or to the job and backed home and 66 or so, percent of the trips are leisure, commerce, personal, and many of these trips are in urban retail clusters if available.

Jeff Wood (25m 58s):
Yeah. And that goes to that discussion that you have as well about the importance of transportation, how important is transportation to urban commerce? Specifically,

Andres Sevtsuk (26m 6s):
There are two types of sort of transportation arguments to be made. And one is how many people can get to these clusters on foot without even having to rely on any system as a car or a public transit system. And I try to show that there’s actually a good deal of cities in America. We’re already over half of the city’s population is within walking reach of, of urban retail clusters. They can walk to in some cases and in an extreme case in Manhattan, for instance, it’s virtually a hundred percent from every census block. You can walk to a cluster of three cars on foot and that’s a density argument, but then sir, the cities, generally, the more people can actually get to these stores and foot, but urban street commerce works very well also in tandem with public transport.

Andres Sevtsuk (26m 47s):
And it requires transport land use and sort of local urban design coordination to achieve these goals. Because in many instances, we don’t have all that much density in stores actually require people to come from further places, especially when we have these higher order stores that have larger Cashman areas. And so coordinating where we put transit investments and where would we zone for street commerce and where do we do street improvements that are resigned? I think it requires this kind of, cross-sectoral thinking that transport is not a separate problem from local economic development and local economic development is not a separate problem from public space and urban health.

Andres Sevtsuk (27m 30s):
These are sort of cross-sectoral topics that align. And I try to make the argument that while they may align in many areas of planning, main streets and local main streets and street cars are areas where they really come together, elegantly where sort of this thing in cities that has a myriad benefits. And it’s a great vehicle for coordinating land use transport and local economic development policies. And it’s sort of a way of organizing otherwise very complex and disjointed planning issues.

Jeff Wood (28m 3s):
Yeah, that’s really important. I want to talk about the sociological impacts in the book. You talk about the ties. So there’s weak ties and strong ties, but weak ties seem to be more important even though the word weak is kind of many times seen as a negative, what is a weak tie?

Andres Sevtsuk (28m 17s):
Yes. This notion comes from Mark Granovetter. Who’s a sociologist who published a lot on this topic of social networks in the 1970s. And in one of his papers, that’s entitled the strength of weak ties. He summarized how weak ties in society represent these connections that many of us have with folks who we don’t meet all that often, but which are extremely important for transmitting information through societies and giving people access to opportunities. So for instance, Granovetter demonstrated that many of us are more likely to find a job through somebody who we meet a couple of times a year, rather than somebody who will meet every day in our office or hope.

Andres Sevtsuk (28m 59s):
And this is in part due to the fact that these weak ties, these connections, we meet every couple of months or weeks or years, even we have a whole lot more of these weak dies than we have strong ties and into people we work with, or is it at home, which he refers to as strong ties are much more limited. So that’s what the weak ties are in that context.

Jeff Wood (29m 19s):
I also kind of extrapolated it to this connection with people in your neighborhood as well. I mean, thinking about I go to my bagel shop and they know what I want because I go there fairly often or, you know, stores along the 24th street corridor, which was, I was happy to see it was in your cluster map by the street that I live next to. But that idea that you kind of get more connected with your community as well in terms of with the people who work in the shops. And obviously they’re not strong ties. I’m not going to have lunch with all these folks, but I do know them and I do appreciate seeing them.

Andres Sevtsuk (29m 50s):
What you’re pointing to Jeff, I think is critical, which is that Margaret a veteran didn’t really address the question in the seventies, where do weak ties come from, let alone, you know, strong ties are oftentimes something we, we don’t choose were either born into or we professionally end up in, right? So our education dictates what kind of a job we’ll get. And we’ll end up with like-minded professionals that we network with or work with. And we’re born into families. And sometimes we are even, you know, in religious groups or in certain social groups, not directly by our choice, but because of circumstance, but those weak ties that are so important for societies, where do they come from?

Andres Sevtsuk (30m 30s):
And I believe that urban planning has a whole lot to do with that. And just like you just said that your neighborhood can generate those weak ties, your bagel shop and other shops can produce certainty, counters that once you’ve seen a person more than a couple of times, you start remembering them and you’ll maybe strike up a conversation and that may become a weak tie and cities that create such encounters, I think are really, I mean, I even referred to this concept as late and ties the ties that are just waiting to happen. Right? And you can imagine urban environments where such ties are never built because there is no encounter of that kind, right?

Andres Sevtsuk (31m 13s):
If we are always sort of interacting with the city through a windshield of a car and only interacting with folks at home or in the office, but never really with the diversity of the rest of the society that we could bump into on the city street, then there is no opportunity for these weak ties to form. This actually connects to a really interesting sort of followup study I’m currently involved with. And I might just mentioned, but we are examining the MIT campus and we got access to this anonymized data set that describes as an index, how much different faculty and researchers on the campus communicate with each other by email. So it’s not, we don’t know who they are and not exactly how many emails, but we just have an idea of how much email communication generally occurs between individuals.

Andres Sevtsuk (31m 58s):
And when we analyze that data set, we found that if people are more likely to walk past each other’s offices, when arriving on campus, for instance, so that has to do with how their offices are spatially situated with respect to each other. But if, if they’re structured in such a way that they likely gonna walk past each other’s offices, there’s more email traffic between them. If their offices are closer to each other, there’s more email traffic between them. And third, if they share the same set of amenities, if they are close to the similar eateries or canteens, there’s more email traffic between them. And so I think this speaks to the same idea that if city spaces put us in touch by circumstance and create chance encounters, these are the kinds of certain that will lead to the weak ties that Granovetter was referring to.

Jeff Wood (32m 44s):
And the weak ties, it feels like might’ve been a little damaged in the last year because of the pandemic. I’m curious of your thoughts on that because of the need to stay inside for a lot of people to stay away from others. If you live in a city, typically you’re probably out and about because you wanted to get out of the house. So you wanted to walk down the commercial street or trying to get out at least a little bit, but at the same time, you’re also probably not bouncing into those people that you might usually bounce into.

Andres Sevtsuk (33m 9s):
Yeah, you’re right. Absolutely. This year has been a real test for such relationships. And I think if I were to just grab what I think has occurred to weak ties and this year is that we maybe have barely been able to sustain the ties that we already have. If we’re good about it, we may check in with our friends that we see normally on a normal year, you know, once or twice a year, we may have a zoom call with them, et cetera. But what we are not doing is we’re not forming new weak ties since this aspect of bumping into each other on city streets at businesses on main streets, et cetera is really limited throughout the pandemic. We are not expanding our networks in ways that we normally would.

Andres Sevtsuk (33m 49s):
It’ll be interesting to see in the aftermath of the pandemic, what impacts that may have.

Jeff Wood (33m 53s):
Yeah. Well, once a month we have geo beers here in San Francisco with a bunch of folks and I’m, I miss my geo beers. We’d done it on zoom and you see the people that you’ve met before, but it’s also harder to have those side conversations with new people. And I’ve definitely met a lot of people from going to geo beer. So that strikes home for me. Do you have a favorite retail cluster?

Andres Sevtsuk (34m 12s):
Oh, no. I, I can’t really pinpoint any one that I love the most, but there are many that I find extremely interesting and some of them are just so odd for instance, you know, there are a couple of streets in Hong Kong that trade birds in cages, right. And where else in the world do you find that it’s just an amazing phenomenon or it’s always fascinating to me to go off into other specialized clusters, like electronics clusters of book clusters. Many cities will have these, what are called comparison goods sold in clusters and books. Shoes are these things that people like to kind of browse from one store to another, oftentimes come in clusters. And I find it really interesting to browse through those, even though I might never buy something from an electronics cluster in someplace, but it’s just really fascinating to see.

Andres Sevtsuk (35m 1s):
And that’s, I think the sort of exploratory behavior of browsing through places and maybe kind of expanding our networks and latent ties to two areas we’ve never encountered before. I think this is the beauty of it in Los Angeles and California, you know, there’s this giant flower clustering downtown as part of the, I think it’s services most of the LA Metro area. Oh, of course I have my local ones that I go to almost all the time here. And we’re blessed to have this sort of old Anglo town planning pattern in the Boston area where there’s lots of butter called squares and squares are essentially clusters of businesses that are highly accessible in the streets coming together. So I have a good handful of maybe four or five squares within walking distance of my house that I go regularly to.

Jeff Wood (35m 45s):
Yeah. This story about Kendall square was specifically interesting in the book talking about how kind of they worked really hard to bring more retail to the space.

Andres Sevtsuk (35m 54s):
Yeah. Kendall square is one of those interesting cases where it’s home of a pretty large tech cluster and it has a very dense built environment. In fact, it has a road network and that’s highly connected sort of fanning roads coming together. So it’s, so it’s a significantly accessible spot and there’s also a subway station and there’s MIT right at the station and so forth. But just for years has been lacking stores. It turns out that it’s, it’s largely because many of those buildings are centrally owned by large companies who make boatloads of money from renting office space upstairs and having to really care to coordinate ground floor leases and inviting stores that would benefit everyone.

Andres Sevtsuk (36m 37s):
So to address that shortcoming, the city stepped in and the city basically argued that it’s in everyone’s interest to start putting in stores on the ground floors. And the density is more than sufficient. There’s all the preconditions are there. It just kind of needed to twist the arm of some of those developers who own the building and say, Hey, you have to actually now start putting the stores in men and it’s taken off it. Kendall square has, it’s an entirely different place from when I first moved to Boston, it’s there several hundred percent increase probably by now in terms of the number of stores that are there.

Jeff Wood (37m 10s):
Well, the over push ground floor retail and those type of interventions,

Andres Sevtsuk (37m 15s):
It is. Yeah, definitely. There is another area actually quite close to Kendall square called the university park in Cambridge, where the city just decided at one point when it was developed in the 19, I believe in that early nineties, that this was going to be a new retail cluster, but, and so they force the developers to make all the ground floors commercial, or at least commercial compatible. They could even maybe have another use, but it was supposed to be easy to convert them to stores if the needs arise and it never picked up, it was, there are many kinds of reasons for this. It’s too close to some other clusters that are just around the corner at central square, et cetera. But it’s still to this day, almost 30 years after it doesn’t have any significant retail cluster in it.

Andres Sevtsuk (38m 0s):
And this is maybe an example where the public sector didn’t quite do their homework to figure out whether it would work or not. And didn’t do that location analysis and, and just sort of over zoned it. And it hasn’t worked

Jeff Wood (38m 15s):
Think of analysis and detailed things. You know, one of the things that we focus on when I used to work at an organization called the center for Tod, we would talk about travel demand models and those types of things, and thinking about, you know, parking spaces for new development and how that was affected by subway stops, et cetera. But it seems like travel demand models can get urban retail really wrong, especially since they’ve been focused on this, you know, the mall model or at least the suburban model. Has that been something you’ve experienced?

Andres Sevtsuk (38m 43s):
Yeah. I think travel demand models generally operate at the scale of Taz or travel houses zones, or sometimes zipcode. So they’re a tool for metropolitan scale mobility modeling and to sort of two, oftentimes for understanding broad flows of people from one zone to another, without getting to the sort of nitty gritty resolution that cars often times operates in. So they may be right in terms of understanding on how many people may be coming to downtown, but streetcars is, is scattered in so many more clusters. And as I tried to argue that majority of it is always in small clusters because the way zips law distributes things, that there’s very few large ones and there’s a whole lot of very small clusters distributed around the traditional TDMs are traveling.

Andres Sevtsuk (39m 31s):
My models are not the right tool for understanding that, but there are new walkability tools that, you know, in my lab, actually, we’ve been creating the fencing called the urban network analysis tools for many years, that model pedestrian trips and the logic is very similar. We still do travel demand modeling. We basically do trip generations, but instead of zones, we use individual buildings as trip origins, there’s strip distribution, which goes to individual destinations that addresses like shops or like bus stops, transit stops, parks and so forth. And it’s possible to model how people can access and predict how many people will end up visiting particular locations with these new tools.

Jeff Wood (40m 11s):
Yeah. There’s a lot of great use of the tools in the book, which I hope folks will get a chance to read. How has the book been received so far?

Andres Sevtsuk (40m 18s):
I, I, it’s hard to actually say because it’s a strange year to publish a book. There’s no book tours, there’s no talks in person. I’ve had really pleasant conversations with various folks at the university and folks back in Europe. And there’s been a couple of translation requests, which have been very pleased to see, but yeah, there’s a whole lot of is this lack of talking with people more casually and having a presentation or something like that, which would happen in a normal year. So it’s hard to tell,

Jeff Wood (40m 49s):
Well, it’s such a novel book and I was surprised that I didn’t see more about it. I saw a couple of articles, which is why I contacted you. And, you know, I wanted to read the book and talk to you about it, but I didn’t see as much as maybe some other books. And I was surprised at that because it’s such a novel topic and it’s such an important topic. And you even mentioned, I mean, this is something that urban planning schools and other folks aren’t talking about, maybe as much as they should. So I hope when the pandemic clears, you can go on that book tour and then generate some of those weak ties.

Andres Sevtsuk (41m 14s):
Yeah. That would be fantastic. I think in part is also in academia, we will be often hadn’t worked with academic presses and they may have slightly less reach than some of the trade presses that reach many more bookstores. But indeed, yeah. I hope to get back on that personal conversation and encounter soon. Yeah. Well, where can folks find the book

Jeff Wood (41m 34s):
If they want to get a copy?

Andres Sevtsuk (41m 35s):
The easiest is probably the greatest small of all Amazon, but I also encourage people to order straight from Penn press. They have their own order site and most of the bookstores in parts of the United States where you can now maybe visit a bookstore, bookstores may carry it. I’ve seen it around at least listed in all the major chains.

Jeff Wood (41m 55s):
Yeah. My listeners are probably tired of hearing me say this, but bookshop.org. If you go in order from them and you type in your local bookstore, they’ll give part of the proceeds to the local bookstore. You can have it delivered and then it’ll give some of the proceeds. If you can’t make it out to your bookstore. I highly recommend that my local one is, is a really awesome, so I order books from them fairly frequently. Andres, this is a great book. I really appreciate you writing it. Thank you so much for joining us.

Andres Sevtsuk
Great. Thank you for having me. It’s my pleasure.

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