The Meatspace CityPosted: September 20, 2012
One of the more interesting recent developments in the urban planning sphere has been Tony Hsieh’s multimillion-dollar investment in revitalizing downtown Las Vegas. Hsieh, the CEO of online shoe retailer Zappos, wants to redevelop the city’s core with his company’s offices as the anchor, creating a dense and vibrant environment where his creative class employees can live, work, and otherwise thrive. The plan reflects a corporate philosophy that applies Jane Jacobs’ urbanist principles to office environments, an approach explained well by Malcolm Gladwell, but Hsieh’s scheme is unique in that it won’t be confined to the Zappos headquarters: Hsieh wants to remake downtown Las Vegas as a whole. In both cases, a more innovative workplace culture is the ultimate goal, but Hsieh seems interested in creating something with positive externalities.
Las Vegas City Hall (Source: Brandon Wiegand)
Hsieh’s plan for Las Vegas is idealistic, ambitious, and controversial, but most of all it rests upon a great irony: Zappos has perfected a business model that undermines physical retail and thus helps to erode the vitality of many American downtowns. The clearest example of this is Amazon’s impact on bookstores. If you live in New York or San Francisco you might not understand how much a Borders could matter to a city’s downtown, but many smaller cities with fewer cultural assets depend more on whatever they’ve got. In many cases, “what they’ve got” has been a chain bookstore like Borders (which can remain vacant for years after the tenant goes away—I’ve seen it happen). While Zappos has not affected shoe stores as drastically as Amazon has affected bookstores, the company has certainly captured plenty of revenue that shoppers previously spent in their own city’s commercial districts. The basic economic reality that Zappos represents and Hsieh’s high-profile, symbolic intervention in downtown Las Vegas are seemingly at odds: the latter putting a band-aid on a wound the former is currently making worse.
Bookstores and a few other niches aside, we haven’t really begun to see the full impact of online shopping on urban retail. E-commerce has become much more sophisticated in the last few years, with Amazon Prime offering a level of convenience that rivals a trip to the CVS on the corner, and it would not be surprising to see many other types of stores fall by the wayside as their online competition surpasses them in convenience. The logical conclusion of those developments is the (admittedly extreme) prediction made by Stephen Gordon: In the future everything will be a coffee shop. That is, the only spaces we’ll need for working, shopping, and learning are comfortable places where we can get on the internet together.
The future of everything (Source: blakethompson.net)
If everything will eventually be a coffee shop, than Tony Hsieh’s business and his Las Vegas plan start to seem more consistent. They’re both manifestations of what I’m going to call the Meatspace City: the fully wired urban condition. Even when online shopping becomes entirely frictionless, a lot of shopping will still happen in meatspace because of its tactile nature. Shoe shopping, for example, generally requires trying the shoes on. Book shopping is much less tactile, which is why the internet absorbed it so easily. Shopping is slowly bifurcating into a component easily handled online (price comparison, item selection, payment) and a component best accomplished in a physical store (trying things on, picking them up). Increasingly, stores will be showrooms where we decide what we want and then order it online (see: Bonobos). Urban commerce will be increasingly based upon the purely physical: food, drink, showrooms, and coffee shops. Brooklyn feels like it’s getting there. Everything the internet can’t do better, and only those things. The Meatspace City.