sustainable living blog, this is as close to utopia as can be. American tourists frequently come home from Europe raving about the walkability of her cities, and there is enormous truth in this impression. Many European towns and cities began their life as a protected and privileged space for merchants, artisans, burgers and the like to trade the goods from their urban hinterlands and gather behind walls to protect themselves from the brutal realities of pre-modern life. Fast-forward to the 21st century, and we see that many a European city has survived in a modified, yet compact form not simply due to good planning, but because it made sense from a business perspective to have goods and services located in a central location.
American cities, on the other hand, followed a different path. The post-WWII era saw significant urban flight towards the suburbs. The GI Bill and and profitable construction, among other things, encouraged city dwellers to leave their urban life behind and settle down into suburban areas marketed as safer and more genteel. King Automobile facilitated movement, and the first fifty years after WWII saw significant suburbanization and resulting urban decay. The past twenty years, however, have seen a reverse trend. Although suburbs and suburban cities are still growing at a marked pace, urban spaces have been revitalized through redevelopment and the re-population of run-down areas with businesses and services. This so-called "gentrification" has had both positive and negative effects, but it is undeniable that navigable cities are more sustainable than their sprawling, suburban counterparts.
More to the point, urban areas encourage local small business models with a strong community presence. In the three years since I returned from France, I have found myself increasingly drawn to the East Bay's best kept secret, La Farine. La Farine is about as close as any American business can come to an authentic French boulangerie. Fresh baguettes, pastries and cakes are served with a minimal amount of kitsch, and always fresh and delicious. The purpose of this article is not to extol the virtues of La Farine, but to speak to the manner in which an institution such as a local bakery ties together neighborhoods in a sustainable way. All four locations are centered in walkable neighborhoods and get the majority of their business from foot traffic. Through both unofficial and official partnerships with other local businesses in the area (the butchers, bakers and candlestick makers band together!) they are the beating hearts of the small business community in Oakland. And where small, local businesses can thrive, so to can meaningful and well paying jobs survive and prosper along with an urban-smart population.
In addition to their product offering, La Farine is also active in community development. My local shop, in the Dimond District of Oakland, helps to sponsor community events and forums in conjunction with Dimond's other local businesses. They are also active in charitable causes, notably the donation of significant amounts of product to local schools and food banks. A sustainable city thrives as a result of the cooperation of its businesses and denizens, and beyond the fact that they make good bread, I have been increasingly impressed with their capacity of community organization.
Which brings me to my conclusion. If walkability is at the heart of the sustainable cities, then we all need to think about where we get our bread. No business model encourages urban foot traffic quite like a locally owned and operated bakery, and it is likely that your investment in local bread will encourage urban sustainability well beyond a simple purchase.