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Wal-Mart Embracing New Urbanism?

I have been meaning to write about this for quite some time, but I think the news is still relevant. The Hurricane Katrina tragedy might actually turn out to be a fortuitous event in the history of the retail giant Wal-Mart. Tired of receiving backlash from the public, Wal-Mart has been an important player in the recovery of the South. They were very pro-active in rebuilding and reopening their damaged stores following the hurricane and the company has played a major role in post-Katrina relief efforts. Now Wal-Mart appears to be embracing the New Urbanist movement of the rebuilding efforts (see the Mississippi Renewal charrette). John Massengale writes about his recent meeting with Wal-Mart executives about the rebuilding the Pass Christian, Mississippi store with mixed-use buildings surrounding it, creating a new town center with a traditional neighborhood feel. Here are a couple of highlights from the discussion posted on John’s blog, Veritas et Venustas:

2. Architecture: They are actively considering the mixed-used, multi-level Wal-Mart design that Ben Pentreath drew for Pass Christian during the Forum charrette. They did call us on the carpet about the architectural style, though. One of them said he had heard that Ben was from England, and that although he thought his drawing was beautiful, he respectfully said that it looked like Buckingham Palace! They said they were more interested in an architecture for the Pass Christian store that reflected the South. (Yes, you’ve read this correctly.)

4. SmartCode: We told them that the Pass Christian SmartCode could enable the development of the Wal-Mart Village. As a group, they were interested in learning more about the SmartCode. None of them had heard about it before. One of them said that it sounded like a great idea because the same rules would then apply to everyone – not one set of standards for Wal-Mart and one set of standards for everyone else as is often the case in the communities where they work. At least two of them are now planning to attend the SmartCode workshop in Biloxi in March.

I think this is very good news, but I am not confident that this trend will spread to other Wal-Mart stores across the world. I am not a fan of Wal-Mart, but to be fair, I am not a fan of hardly any big-box development and corporations. My opinions of them, at least from a planning sense, could change significantly if they engaged the public, planners, and architects more in their building architecture and development designs. I do understand that a lot of times these developers are just “adhering to the zoning codes”, which is a major problem, but so is the numbing architecture and sprawl that is plaguing North America. So, a combination of the creation of SmartCode and engaging Wal-Mart in the planning process could be a precedent for future developments to come.

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