Monthly Archives: January 2013

What’s An Urban Grocery Store?

Answer: Not an urban legend.

In metropolitan areas across the country, residents have been faced with fresh food deserts, or areas where one third of the population is more than a mile from a grocery store and one fifth exists below the poverty line. City dwellers are faced with carrying their groceries on long public transit rides, buying a car or relying on convenience stores to purchase their groceries.

For some lucky metro-poles, there is yet another option: visiting their local urban grocery stores. Though not exactly super markets, these small grocery stores strive to provide their cities with fresh food, meat and cooking staples within reasonable walking distance. Corner stores like these became passe after super stores like Wal-Mart, Wegmans, Weis and Giant came to suburbia. However there’s been a new push toward walkability and sustainable growth within our cities and we again need accessible food in our urban areas.

However, the confines of urban design present some challenges. These grocery stores have to use a fraction of the space that super stores have, prioritize the goods they will provide and consider parking in an area unable to accommodate a super-parking-lot. Even with these challenges in mind, many cities and entrepreneurs have taken the risk and opened such grocery stores.

In the city of Dallas, Texas, there is one such grocery store that also encompasses a delivery component. Nestled in the heart of downtown Dallas, Urbanmarket is the only full service grocery store in its area. They provide produce, meat, deli, seafood, wine & beer, health and beauty products, flowers and prepared foods. Also, if you submit your grocery list online by noon on Tuesday or Friday, your groceries will  be delivered right to you.

Washington, D.C. is getting even more use out of urban space by utilizing mixed use development. On the same property as the Urban Lifestyle Safeway grocery store, there are 441 condos, 244 apartments and 75,000 square feet of retail space. The property is only 3.2 acres. Parking for these facilities is approximately 40 percent of a standard suburban grocery store but still has maintained a successful business model through foot and bike traffic.

There are four food deserts in the Lehigh Valley right now, which (according to the USDA) means that there are four regions in which one third of the population has to travel more than a mile to reach fresh food and at least one fifth of the population exists  below the poverty line. Is an urban grocery store a potential solution to this fresh food problem? Envision Lehigh Valley has been gathering public input on fresh food access and those findings will be included in a comprehensive plan to combat food deserts in the Valley. Community involvement and ideas will be critical in this planning process.

Fresh Food Access and Pricing

The Greater Lehigh Valley chapter of Buy Fresh Buy Local (BFBL-GLV) has released a study that counters the popular perception that prices at farmers’ markets are more expensive than at grocery stores. (Click here to read the complete study on the pricing of farmers markets compared to grocery stores) No significant price difference was found between the two venues in the LehighValley. In fact, “Because there was a wide price range for produce at the Lehigh Valley farmers’ markets, it was always possible to find less expensive produce there than at the grocery stores,” says study author and Lehigh University Community Fellow, Laura Schmidt.

The study included pricing data for nine seasonal products (produce, meat and eggs) collected in the fall of 2012. Data was collected from four LehighValley farmers’ markets and two grocery stores and accounted for both organic and conventional growing methods.

“This study challenges the myth that food at farmers’ markets is always more expensive than at grocery stores.” says BFBL-GLV Director, Lynn Prior. “In addition, it shows that seasonal, locally-grown foods can be very affordable and cost less than food imports at grocery stores.”

The study will be incorporated into an Assessment Report for a Fresh Food Access Plan being developed as part of EnvisionLehighValley, and funded by a HUD Sustainable Communities Grant. Fresh food access forums for public comment will be hosted  in March 2013 by Buy Fresh Buy Local and the Nurture Nature Center. (Visit for event schedules and updates.)

The report will look at the assortment of businesses and relationships involved in moving food from our local farms to our tables.  While there’s been great success with direct sales from our local farms to consumers, we are not doing as well getting local foods to wholesale buyers.  Infrastructure is critical to move local food to wholesale buyers.  The report will examine what we have and need in terms of infrastructure to scale up our local food system.

There are four designated food deserts in the LehighValley.  The USDA defines a food desert according to census tracts.  Communities qualify as food deserts if they meet two criteria:

  • low-income communities (a poverty rate of 20 percent or more); and
  • low-access communities (at least 33% of the population lives greater than 1 mile from a large grocery store).

Consumers in the LehighValley spend $1.5 billion on food each year; less than one percent of this is purchased directly from our local farms.  The result is that most of our food dollars are leaving our region through purchase of food imports.  By increasing the amount of food purchased from our local growers, we can help make farming more profitable and ensure that farmland & healthy, flavorful food will be available for future generations.  At the same time, we will also be investing our food dollars locally and creating jobs right here in the Lehigh Valley.

BFBL-GLV is a program of the NurtureNatureCenter, a 501©(3) organization. BFBL chapters across Pennsylvania are coordinated by the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA), on behalf of our national partner, Food Routes Network.

Building Communities, Creatively

As Envision Lehigh Valley has pushed residents to think about what they want their community to look like over the next twenty years, there is no better time to consider the fabric of the community that binds us. The Lehigh Valley is projected to change drastically over the next 20 years, adding 145,000 new residents, an additional 72,000 households and a 15 percent increase in jobs. With these changes, the region will have to adapt and it is the role of the community to play an active part in cultivating their home.

According to Thomas Borrup, in his book on creative community building, “Community is an elusive term…the word will refer to the people and the natural and built environments within a geographically defined area. [It is] more inclusive of the social, civic and economic bonds in addition to physical bonds.”

Through the public forum meetings held to discuss the future of the Lehigh Valley, residents from all walks of life have shared their opinions and outlooks for the region. This diversity in ideas, has lent itself to creating particularly creative solutions in which Borrup says that we “weave multiple endeavors and professions into the never-ending work of building and rebuilding the social, civic, physical, economic and spiritual fabrics of communities. Creative community building engages the cultural and creative energies inherent in every person and every place.”

These creative solutions will manifest themselves in the master plans that Envision partners are going to undertake over the next few years. The arenas of these reports include environment and energy conservation, affordable housing, access to fresh food, enhancement of public transportation, economic development and catalytic projects undertaken by the three major cities that comprise the Lehigh Valley– Allentown, Bethlehem, and Easton.

Studies in multiple US cities consistently have found that cultural organizations, particularly small, community-based cultural groups, exert far greater impact than their size would suggest. Organizations of this nature have partnered with municipalities to maximize the effects of the grant that this project received. Envision Lehigh Valley partners include RenewLV, Lehigh Valley Planning Commission, Lehigh Valley Economic Development Council, CACLV, LANta, Buy Fresh Buy Local, Wildlands Conservancy and The Nurture Nature Center.  While independently these groups have a limited reach within the Lehigh Valley, their voices together will be able to provide comprehensive plans and solutions to problems facing the entire region.

“We shape our cities and then our cities shape us.” – Surburban Nation

Chuck Marohn’s Message Resonates in Lehigh Valley

As a follow-up to last week’s blog about Chuck Marohn’s Strong Towns presentation, guest bloggers Ron Beitler and Scott Alderfer co-wrote the following post. Ron Beitler –, Ron is a local smart growth advocate. Scott Alderfer – Scott’s blog “streamhugger”, Scott is Chair of LMT’s Environmental Advisory Council

“Earlier this week, we had the opportunity to attend the lecture by Chuck Marohn, author and Executive Director of the Minnesota-based non-profit group Strong Towns that Ron mentioned guest blogging here on ‘Crossroads’ two weeks ago.  The mission of Strong Towns is to support a model for growth that allows America’s towns to become financially strong and resilient.  Chuck stopped in Lower Macungie last Wednesday as part of his week-long, 11-town lecture tour of Pennsylvania.  (Here is a link to a news story about Chuck’s talk in Lancaster, PA, later the same day that I heard him speak. )

Drawing on his experience as both a civil engineer and a land planner, Chuck argued that the way U.S. municipalities have been growing since World War II has been based on an unsustainable Ponzi scheme that funds continually-expanding suburban development without considering the long-term costs of that development.

Strong Town’s website explains that, since the end of World War II, our cities and towns have experienced growth using three primary mechanisms:

  • Transfer payments between governments: where the federal or state government makes a direct investment in growth at the local level, such as funding a water or sewer system expansion.
  • Transportation spending: where transportation infrastructure is used to improve access to a site that can then be developed.
  • Public- and private-sector debt: where cities, developers, companies, and individuals take on debt as part of the development process, whether during construction or through the assumption of a mortgage.

But these developments rarely generate more revenue than the taxpayer invested when governments take into account long-term obligations.  New, short-term gains in public revenue must then be used to offset the long-term costs from the “next big thing” of 20 years ago.  That’s because the costs to these governments in long-term maintenance or added debt service were not accounted for when the politicians were being courted by the developers decades earlier.

Chuck’s take home message was that any private development project that is seeking public assistance (e.g. utility or transportation subsidies or financing incentives) should present a realistic cost-benefit analysis.  And that includes all long-term costs.

When we … exploit land development ordinances that fail to recognize Smart Growth principles, we get more and more big box stores and strip malls on the outskirts of developed areas.  In other words, we get more sprawl.  They try to sell it to us with a fairy tale about how many more jobs their big box will create and how much more tax revenue the development will generate if the municipality will “partner” with the developer to extend roads and utilities to the cornfields that they want to pave over.  But widening our local roads to accommodate more sprawling developments only gives the illusion of prosperity in our local communities.

Developers and municipal officials, who may either be naïve or have ulterior motives, will continue the Ponzi scheme of getting governments to subsidize the infrastructure for more sprawl until there is a grassroots push to demand cost-benefit analyses for these train wrecks of cinder blocks and asphalt being touted as economic development.

Strong Towns’ mission to help towns become financially strong and resilient by making better-informed decisions is a mission that should appeal to folks of all political stripes.  For tree huggers (or stream huggers) like Scott, it means putting the brakes on unchecked development of greenfields, because most developers would have to fund more of the infrastructure improvements themselves. For fiscal conservatives, like Ron, it means making development pay it’s own way. Both of us see the value in both approaches. Either way the Strong Towns perspective is something to consider.” Message Coming to the Lehigh Valley

Guest blogger, Ron Beitler, from Friends for the Protection of Lower Macungie, will blog today and tomorrow about the Strong Towns presentation being held tonight in Easton at Lafayette College and tomorrow at Lower Macungie Township Offices.  To view location details, visit  This is his report:

On January 9th, Charles Marohn will bring the ‘curbside chat‘ message to the Lehigh Valley. The chat is a presentation, followed by a community-specific discussion, about the financial health of our places.

The Strongtowns message is important because it transcends politics. Personally I get nervous when folks assume one particular party has ‘ownership’ over the smart growth issue. At it’s core smart growth is a fiscally conservative philosophy. Some such as Kaid Benfield have went so far as to call the Strong Towns message a conservatives manifesto against sprawl.

While many associate “sprawling growth patterns as rooted in their effect on the landscape, the environment, and severely compromised populations left behind,(All very important messages!) Marohn is all about the money.  As Thoughts on Building Strong Towns (Marohns book) makes quite clear, Chuck believes that sprawl is a Ponzi scheme and we the taxpayers are the ones left holding the empty bags.” – Benfield NRDC Switchboard

The chat addresses the following fundamental issues:

  • Why are our ‘places’ short on resources despite decades of robust growth? What went wrong?
  • Why do we struggle at the local level just to maintain basic infrastructure?
  • What do we do now that the economy has changed so dramatically?

The answer according to Marohn is in the way we’ve developed and the financial productivity of our places. The Strong Towns message takes the traditional smart growth narrative and looks at it from a fiscal sustainability standpoint. Marohn explains a growth Ponzi scheme in the following way:

Swapping long-term obligations for near-term cash works for a while, but as with any Ponzi scheme, it ultimately collapses under its own weight. We have grown in a pattern that is inefficient, making poor use of our resources and investments.

Friends LMT‘, an East Penn smart growth advocacy group brought Marohn to the area a few months ago via webcast. I found the presentation eye-opening. I will definitely be attending the Lower Macungie Township visit to see Chuck in person. The message is relevant to a place like Lower Macungie that may be falling into the trappings of hyper growth for two decades and only now beginning to feel the effects of the second life cycle of developments.

What: Chuck Marohn Curbside Chat 

Where: Lower Macungie Municipal Building

When: January 9th 8-9:30am

Free & Open to the public