Sunday, March 8, 2020

How not to lose your city - Vacant storefronts Part 2

Activating downtown streets need not be complicated
by Mateja Mihinjac

In the previous blog, I presented the extent of vacant storefronts. This blog looks at how they impact crime and fear, and proposes some possible measures that could be implemented to tackle the problem.

Vacant storefronts may impact safety and perception of safety in two major ways. First, vacancies signify lack of ownership over the stores, especially if defaced, and can become crime generators or areas that trigger undesirable street behaviours.

This can be especially problematic if the number of vacancies within a defined area reaches its tipping point and becomes blighted, the concept from the Second Generation CPTED.

Even narrow back streets can become lively

Second, decreased street usage from vacant storefronts impacts perceptions of safety. Street users are strongly influenced by others around them that they perceive as non-threatening. This is why streets that focus on pedestrians and entice them with active storefronts and street vendors increase street activity and make the users feel safer.

Thus, if parts of the city communicate isolation or activities by undesirable groups, they will cease to be a place the general population visits, or visits only for a limited time.

Bicycle parking near outdoor seating - protecting property
while enjoying lunch


There are three main categories of possible responses: urban planning; economic development; rent and regulations.


  • Promote pedestrian-friendly and safe activity centers that avoid overreliance on cars and the demand for surface parking lots. We wrote about one type of safe activity center called the Neighborhood Hub in our SafeGrowth book.
  • Avoid exceeding the Second Generation CPTED concept - threshold capacity - when zoning downtown areas. Replace possible crime attractors with prosocial businesses or community places that act as crime detractors.  
  • Create a downtown that is more than retail (sticky places) with a mix of activities that will attract people to visit and stay. For example, shopping malls have expanded to include medical services, cinemas, dining and entertainment options, and libraries. 
  • Plan for a diverse range of businesses and corridors in different neighborhoods and populate vacant shops with tenants less vulnerable to the e-commerce effect (i.e. less dry retail shops). Remember: commercial streets need flexibility to adapt to changing economic trends, consumer preferences, and demographics. 

Grocery stores with healthy food options - planning for health


Pop-ups help street life


  • Provide tax deductions for business owners and developers to occupy the shops quickly and similar financial incentives
  • Institute vacancy tax/fees and remove tax deductions on vacant shops.
  • Change existing regulations and remove inflexible or prescriptive policies that create obstacles for business owners and increases costs of operation.


Any initiatives targeted at boosting business and providing incentives for business owners and shoppers are futile if safety concerns are not addressed.

I disagree with the perspective that urban regeneration should start only when crime drops. Waiting for problems to arise only perpetuates the vicious cycle of crime while citizens stay away from downtown areas. When that occurs, shop owners are left with few options except to purchase expensive and obstructive security measures. This is why safety is an integral part of successful and liveable neighborhoods.

Despite claims to the contrary, reclaiming livability from neighborhoods with entrenched crime and blight is much more difficult and costly than preventing it in the first place. Integrating land uses, zoning, economic activity, regulations and rents, in collaboration with local stakeholders, is the key to livable active streets and what we now call Third Generation CPTED.