How giant stores changed face of America

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The Independent US

Americans know all about the life draining out of town and city centres, and commercial activity moving to big, soulless superstores and shopping malls on the outskirts. They know, because they did it first.

In a country where the car is king and notions of public space are shaky at best – especially away from the older, more established settlements on the east coast – it has been all too easy for local politicians and city planners to allow the suburbs to bloom and prosper while downtown areas dwindle to little more than a few clusters of office buildings, business hotels, coffee shops and dry cleaners.

It's fashionable these days to blame Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, for chasing smaller shops out of business and shifting the centre of urban gravity towards soulless big-box suburban commercial centres. Really, though, the trend long predates Wal-Mart and has more to do with the lack of local planning imagination.

Many larger cities – especially those without a major university campus – have suffered from the same problem. Downtown Los Angeles became notorious, in the decades after the Second World War, for turning into a ghost town after office hours. The same is true of Phoenix, and Houston, and Dallas and many more.

The good news from the other side of the Atlantic, though, is that the death of downtown is often followed by a concerted effort at downtown revival. That trend began in Portland, Oregon, in the 1970s, when a progressive state governor called Tom McCall first introduced the idea of limits on urban growth and replaced a proposed downtown freeway with a waterfront park, now named in his honour. Since then, the best examples of downtown revival have included Denver and even Los Angeles.