Thursday, February 20, 2020

Vacant storefronts - How bad is it?

Excessive vacancies contribute to blight
by Mateja Mihinjac

Local shops and offices that occupy storefronts of downtown and suburban streets inject life into those places. Without them, these areas would not attract local residents or visitors and that would leave downtown areas barren and vulnerable to crime. Vacant storefronts communicate messages to passers-by such as an economic downturn, unsafe conditions, or a lack of care. These were some of the responses shared by the participants in a field study I conducted last year.


While an increase in storefront vacancies appears almost universal across western countries, the extent of the problem varies between countries, cities and even within the neighborhoods:

  • In Manhattan, researchers counted approximately 1000 empty storefronts within a 59 square kilometer area resulting in 10-20% of vacant shops across this densely populated urban island.
  • In one mid-sized Canadian city where I conducted my research, I counted over 20 vacancies within a 0.14 square kilometer downtown area where the overall vacancy rate was estimated at 7.5%.
  • Chicago identified on average 11.5% vacant storefronts across the city with their south suburbs’ vacancies peaking at 21.8%.
  • The UK has also seen a surge in their high streets store vacancies since 2015, with a national average of 10.3%.
  • The rest of Europe is no exception.

Empty storefronts send a powerful, and negative, message to passers-by

Some cities, such as Melbourne, have experienced reductions in their downtown vacant rates but have observed more issues with suburban areas. A scan across 11 suburban retail strips uncovered a vacancy rate of 8.4% with the highest at nearly 17%.

Given a commonly cited 5% “acceptable” vacancy rate, it is not surprising that vacant shopping corridors are a growing worry of commercial experts, CPTED practitioners, and criminologists who study such matters.

We mapped downtown vacant properties to identify risky streets


Vacancies are not uniformly distributed across cities and suburbs for a number of reasons. Some include:

  1. Cost of rent; many small independent shops can no longer afford expensive rents and instead give space to large chain stores and shops instead. This is especially problematic in more expensive parts of the cities and affluent suburbs. Landlords have been chastised for maintaining an empty storefront while waiting for affluent renters.
  2. The post-recession rent bubble; to boost the economy following the 2008/09 recession, developers expanded commercial corridors resulting in over-supply of physical shops with highly-priced rent a few years later.
  3. E-commerce or online shopping are blamed as the main culprit for closing brick and mortar shops. So-called dry retail businesses have seen a significant decrease, while food, beverage, fitness and service retail storefronts appear to be on the rise.

There are ways to minimize and mitigate vacant storefronts 

Other possible reasons for vacancies include rezoning, gentrification and shifting consumer preferences. Ultimately, vacant storefronts not only influence the economy, but they influence safety and social life. In short, when vacancies arise, conditions also arise for street crime and worsening fear.


In our Third Generation CPTED article last year, we pinpoint the importance of social, economic, and environmental sustainability as protective factors against neighbourhood decline. Active local shops and robust local economies are paramount for a decent quality of life. This is a core principle of our vision of liveable 21st Century cities.

The next blog will explore how vacant storefronts impact crime and possible solutions for addressing them.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Penguin in a palm tree

Penguin, Australia
by Tarah Hodgkinson

“The town is called Penguin?", my friend said to me as we drove along the highway in Northern Tasmania. "We have to check that out!” And so, I took the exit.

We came upon the town centre of this coastal community to find a large penguin statue. But not only the statue, everything was penguin-themed. Penguin play areas, penguin posts, even penguin trashcans. All of the stores along the main street were littered with penguin artwork. We had to know more.

It turns out that Penguin, Tasmania is aptly named. Penguins gather in the rookeries along their beachfront. While penguins are pretty interesting creatures, especially to those of us from the Northern Hemisphere, it wasn’t the local wildlife that caught my attention.


What was interesting was the way in which penguins had become a part of their community’s culture. So much so that every placemaking attempt featured the cute little southern birds. There are several areas across the state where Penguins can be found, but this town had dedicated their entire community’s identity to these birds.

I worried that the focus on penguins might solely be an attempt to attract tourists. However, it was clear that the penguin theme was fairly organic and community-based. Each of the small seaside stores had committed to the theme in their own way. Some stores had fun penguin-themed names, others had large stuffed penguins in their windows and still, others had painted penguins on their walls. Even more exciting, the town holds a penguin-themed community market that has been running for twenty years.


If there was any doubt that the town was committed to their shared culture, their reaction to developers trying to capitalize on the town’s proximity to penguin rookeries proves otherwise. When I did some digging about the town’s history, I found that they had prevented some major development plans that would have dramatically changed the landscape of the downtown area and potentially affected their community’s cohesion and culture.

Not only had local residents fought hard against the development, but they also started heritage listing their storefronts. By the end, they had heritage listed 26 sites and prevented the development plans.

Tourism can dramatically impact neighbourhoods in desirable places (see the backlash in Barcelona to increasing tourism). Further, while developers often try to capitalize on these opportunities, it is clear that residents who work together to maintain control over their local history not only can protect their local culture but continue to grow and expand that culture for their entire community. In this way, community-based tourism is often an exercise in building local culture and cohesion.