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Main streets as resilient public spaces

Zooming in on ground floors in Stockholm

Time: Fri 2023-12-08 09.00

Location: Kollegiesalen, Brinellvägen 8, Stockholm

Video link:

Language: English

Subject area: Planning and Decision Analysis, Urban and Regional Studies

Doctoral student: Rosa Danenberg , Urbana och regionala studier

Opponent: Professor Vikas Mehta, University of Cincinnati, USA

Supervisor: Professor Hans Westlund, Urbana och regionala studier; Docent Tigran Haas, Urbana och regionala studier, Centrum för framtida stadsrum

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QC 20231117


This research focuses on how main streets and ground floors can be adaptable and resilient public spaces. Main streets are vital components of the urban fabric of cities worldwide, serving dual roles as both links and places. They have played a major role in Western cities since the turn of the twentieth century; however, their significance as places has diminished over the years due to modernist planning. Contemporary planning approaches have struggled to address the link and place dimensions simultaneously (von Schönfeld and Bertolini 2017; Carmona, de Magalhães, and Hammond 2008a; Carmona et al. 2003). 

Main streets are pivotal nodes for socializing, commerce, and mobility. Their character is largely determined by the spatial features and functions of continuous ground-floor spaces, and the small businesses inhabiting those who create comfortable and sociable sidewalks (Jacobs 1961; Mehta 2011). Yet, spatial, social, and economic shifts driven by processes of privatization, globalization, and digitalization have transformed the main street character. Despite generally being considered to be adaptable and resilient places, main streets require dedicated planning, design, and management support in order to contribute cities being sustainable (Kickert and Talen 2022; Carmona 2015; Jones, Roberts, and Morris 2007; Zukin, Kasinitz, and Chen 2016). 

The research presented in this thesis aimed to provide an in-depth examination of how ground floors change from a socio-spatial perspective and how they are adaptable and resilient, in order to understand how planning, design, and management can support the future existence of main streets. The question that guided the research presented in this thesis was: What role do ground floors play in the creation of adaptable and resilient main streets, and how can planning, design, and management support this process?

The research presented in this thesis reveals a reciprocal relationship between the spatial features of main streets and their ground floors and socio-economic dynamics, which are fundamental components of adaptable and resilient public spaces. To study main streets, ground-floor change was examined using Google Street View, focusing on three main streets in Stockholm between 2009 and 2018. This analysis showed a substantial transformation, with almost half of the ground floors changing during the studied period. This supports the idea that main streets are dynamic ecosystems capable of adapting to shifting socio-economic conditions, indicating their resilience. However, it also became apparent that small, local, and independent businesses accounted for two thirds of the ground floors in 2009 but just ten years later they occupied closer to half of the ground-floor spaces, and that chain stores appeared in the places of the independent stories that disappeared. The store categories that increased in number included ‘food and drink services’ and ‘personal beauty services’, while the ‘retail product store’ category showed a decrease. When investigating the spatial aspect of this transformation, it became evident that small ground-floor spaces are where change occurs. Small spaces undergo more frequent changes and are more adaptable to new functions. Interestingly, chain stores have downscaled to fit into these small spaces, intensifying competition with small, local, and independent businesses that are already in vulnerable positions. 

The research also investigated the privatization of property ownership in Stockholm and the impact of the Pandemic on ground-floor changes. Between 1990 and 2010, privatization occurred in the form of large-scale tenure conversions to cooperative housing associations (CHAs), especially in already-attractive inner-city areas of Stockholm (Andersson and Magnusson Turner 2014; Blomé 2012; Magnusson 2005). A fourth street was studied alongside the first three, and property data from Datscha was added to the database. It was found that CHAs emerged as the dominant type of property owner on the four main streets, such that almost half of ground-floor tenants were renting from CHAs in 2018. 

Research indicates that the large-scale conversion to CHAs has sped up and reinforced the gentrification process (Hedin et al. 2012; Andersson and Magnusson Turner 2014; Magnusson Turner and Andersson 2008; Magnusson 2005; Blomé 2012), and that in the later stages of gentrification, retail gentrification caters to the lifestyles and consumer preferences of new and affluent residents (Mermet 2017; Sakızlıoğlu and Lees 2020; Zukin 201). Retail gentrification involves new retail capitalizing on the value of storefronts as part of a process that leads to the closure of small, local, and independent retailers, who are integral to the vitality of main streets. Employing Kosta’s retail gentrification index and Zukin et al.’s (2009) retail-capital categorization, this research infers that patterns of retail gentrification are evident on Stockholm’s main streets, as demonstrated by the increasing prevalence of the ‘food and drink services’ category and chain stores. Further examination of the property owners responsible for these changes reveals an increase in retail gentrification under CHAs.  

The shift towards privatization via CHAs has enabled residents to serve as board members who oversee ground-floor tenancy management. This unique aspect of CHAs allows residents to be involved in their immediate living environment. The Pandemic shed light on how this plays out in practice, as it posed various challenges for small-business owners. One of these challenges was the reluctance of CHAs to apply for and pay half of government-subsidized rent reductions on behalf of their tenants, which were intended to mitigate the economic impact of the Pandemic and social-distancing practices. This reluctance stemmed from what the small-business owners perceived to be short-term economic considerations. This approach seemed to prioritize the allure of new retail capital over the preservation of small, local, and independent retailers who had contributed to neighborhoods’ unique characters.  

Retail planning and public-space management approaches to main streets and ground floors shed light on the need for curation. The research presented in this thesis suggests that the responsibility for main streets and ground floors as adaptable and resilient public spaces should be borne by polycentric governance structures where public and private interests can be balanced.