What This Innocuous Piece of Plastic Says About Our Suburban Future

Okay. So here we are, out west, working on a county-level comprehensive plan. It’s a big county, which means that each day we meet in the lobby of our centrally-located hotel, then journey caravan-style out to one of the various communities we’re serving over the course of a week.

Until we get where we’re going, it’s exclusively auto-intensive. So our options for a morning coffee stop are often limited to the Starbucks, conveniently located next door to the Applebee’s, in a strip mall outparcel at the border of the local arterial.

It’s there that I discover the inescapable ubiquity of this:

Doodad

It’s not that I don’t know what it is. I do. It’s the little doodad you can use to plug the hole in your drink’s plastic lid, keeping the contents from sloshing around and making a mess. Especially in the car.

photo 1

But here’s the thing: My familiarity with Starbucks is rooted in their urban models. The ones on Main Streets and in neighborhoods, which reflect the chain’s flagship location and play — as best a global brand can — the role of community living room. Ray Oldenburg, author of “The Great Good Place,” calls this kind of space the “third place.” Not your home, not your work, but somewhere in between. Where stature is leveled and all can experience a comfortable sense of belonging.

It’s what Starbucks calls “a place for conversation and a sense of community,” and it’s a pivotal part of their heritage story.

Some Distinct Differences

Yes, these traditional locations still have that same plastic doodad, but you need to seek it out. Maybe you have to ask for it or maybe it’s available on the bar, alongside the cream and sugar. Either way, the company’s expectation is obvious: People here are walking in and/or intending to linger a while. The doodad is the exception, not the norm. Why? Because the drink is just a slow-moving prop in a larger, more leisurely experience. Of enjoying. Or immersing. Or simply savoring a moment filled with the theater of humanity — the myriad, diverse folks connected to you by virtue of the broader community you share.

But contrast that with the suburban Starbucks model we experienced. There, every drink comes with the doodad. Every single one. The expectation is clear that you’re not sticking around. You’re just passing through — and quickly.

That got me looking around. And the (some not so) subtle differences I noticed kind of bummed me out.

Looking for the entrance? Here you go.

Looking for the entrance? Here you go.

Historically speaking, sandwich board signage was pedestrian oriented. Here? Not so much.

Historically speaking, sandwich board signage was pedestrian oriented. Here? Not so much.

Everything here is explicitly about commodity and production. Faces are buried in the flurry of activity. More than one person wears a wireless headset. And the line of cars outside passes right on through, one after another.

Everything here is explicitly about commodity and production. Faces are buried in a flurry of activity. More than one person wears a wireless headset. And the line of cars continues unabated, just outside the window.

Kill the time by chatting with the next person in line. Oh, wait. Scratch that.

Kill some time by chatting with the next person in line. Oh, wait. Scratch that.

A few other things: They don’t play any music inside. They offer only a handful of tables. There are no children and only one guy on a laptop. No. One’s. Talking.

How can this, by any stretch of the imagination, be called a coffee shop?

Here’s Where It Gets Tricky

By now, someone’s surely poised to scold me, suggesting I stop pretending I’m European and get with reality. And you know what? They have a point. Starbucks isn’t in the business of elevating our culture. They’re in the business of making money. Which is why, when reaching out to the majority of Americans who live in the ‘burbs, I don’t fault them for acknowledging the surrounding context. In a pragmatic, capitalistic sort of way, I admire them for so shamelessly stripping out the experience they’re otherwise known for and simply putting a four dollar cup of coffee in someone’s hand as quickly and efficiently as possible so they can get on their way.

It’s what no shortage of people seem to want, right? And that’s something that makes me wary about the emerging task of suburbia’s inevitable physical redevelopment, and the necessity for what urbanists Ellen Dunham Jones calls “suburban retrofitting” and Galina Tachieva calls “sprawl repair.”

We know that creating urbanity — like cultivating coffee culture — in a sprawling context is hard. Really hard. And we know that, oftentimes, people simply like to continue doing things the way they’re doing them, for no other reason than the apparent ease of doing so. Which means that the political will necessary to do something difficult — to truly re-imagine and recreate our communities — will in many cases fail to materialize. And on and on we go.

Is the suburban Starbucks a canary in the coal mine, instructing urban reformers to abandon the ‘burbs altogether and simply direct their available energies towards the existing city instead?

I don’t know. But I do know this: Starbucks created an entirely new niche when they discovered people will pay vastly more for coffee if it’s delivered as an experience rather than just a product. Yet somehow, in growing to become synonymous with the typical American’s morning cup o’ joe, they’ve seemingly transcended that fact — evolving to a point where people — at least those trapped in our overall culture of commuter-based busyness — will now forego the experience altogether, yet still pay the premium.

What’s up with that? It certainly doesn’t bode well for taking on the status quo. It’s hard to effect change in an environment where there’s still so much money to be made delivering so little.

What do you think? Will America’s suburban populations eventually demand the compact, walkable, mixed-use patterns of our historic cities or will they prefer to remain as they are, auto-oriented for however long it lasts?

Personally, I’ll take my coffee in a ceramic cup, please. At a cafe table outside. And spare me the doodad.

Scott Doyon

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Comments

  1. I was just in a hybrid Starbucks in Apopka, Florida which had four or five people inside, with Macs. But the also had a drive-through. They were on an outparcel of a shopping center, on a highway… that a mile further down, became a short stretch of Main Street. In this case, everyone came inside to place their order; I didn’t see a single car at the drive-through. Not sure what this means, other than maybe the slip of culture they’ve created elsewhere is raising its hand and voting to keep it indoors.

    One other thing… how long can Starbucks keep charging premium prices for their coffee when other drive-through merchants offer an entire meal for only a dollar or two? I believe we’re hitting the Easy Button on Starbucks… for now. But I don’t think it’s sustainable. They need to come back inside.

  2. The canary is so obvious that no one sees it. It is the ubiquity of sprawl itself. It is a problem only solved by ending it. Car free + density.

  3. I believe the suburbs have committed suicide by building every residential community in an HOA or condo complex. Over 60 million Americans now live in these nightmares and the problems range from A to Z with massive embezzlement issues in between. The younger generations are not going to buy into this type of controlled living where you sign away your US Constitutional Rights and become business partners with all of your new neighbors in a non-profit corporation that YOU are personally guaranteeing the debts, liabilities, loans, lawsuits, construction defects and disaster rebuilds with your bank account. Younger generations are too smart to walk down this path that far too many people are being destroyed financially, emotionally, and many times physically by.

    Inner city living with walkable locations will come back. The suburbs will be filled with run down and abandoned HOA properties. The condos are already being bought by investors and turned into apartment buildings. Younger people want to rent. They don’t want McMansions. They will live in smaller square footage and spend their $4 per day at the local coffee shop where they will discuss their next adventure in travel or idea for invention. They will socialize and connect with others for the greater good but they will not live in a gated community where they aren’t allowed to park on their driveway, have a swingset for their kids, or paint their front door pink. They will reject the cookie cutter basic HOA beige box. And they will never fall for the scam of suffering through all this under the guise of “protecting property values!”

  4. JIm Warren says:

    On a positive note, there is a “whole lotta in-between.” My neighborhood is over 60 years old, entirely walkable, forested to the point where we have coyotes, deer aplenty, and “wabbits”. While I commute into the city in my EV, once I return home, I settle into outer city living that affords me bike lanes, parks, sidewalks, an active and viable downtown square, and the comfort and occasional aggravation of knowing all of my immediate neighbors.

    I am less than a mile from that downtown and the space between is entirely walkable. I don’t ever stop in at STARBUCKS (urban or rural, because I think it is madness to pay $4 for over brewed coffee, no matter how high the quality of the surroundings or the patronage), but I do drive by one downtown daily on my commute. I am happy to report that both the drive-through, as well as the ample outdoor patio area, are both full with caffeinated folks whose pockets are obviously deeper than mine.

    I hope and believe that it is possible to have the best (or more desirable) of both urban and suburban: good schools AND low taxes, large, verdant homesites AND low property taxes, and good square foot value in home rental/ownership. Theatre, dining, churches, bakery…all accessible by a pleasant walk. Oh, I much prefer my COMMUNITY COFFEE ( a whole pound is less than ONE grande) in my reusable plastic drive mug, brewed at my home. And it comes DOODAD free!

  5. Aaron Holverson says:

    While reading this I was reminded of something that I heard recently: in order for someone’s actions to change their thinking has to change. I’m not certain that the majority of consumers see the trip to Starbucks (or any big chain) as much more than the necessary trip to acquire the coffee. With the invention of the drive-thru we were all of sudden put in control (somewhat) of who we had to mingle with. No longer was it necessary to converse with people, some of whom you might no like or agree with, in a line while waiting for the coffee that you both share a liking for. We’re in control of who we see and don’t see. Many people like that. Until people change their way of thinking and see value in the experience as well as the coffee, the experience will just be seen as something that gets in the way of people consuming their coffee (their reason for the trip) and getting on there way.

  6. but haven’t they always sold their coffee in a disposable paper cup? I’ve never been in a starbucks (even in the city) where they’ll give you a ceramic cup – something that’s far more common in local coffee shops. It’s always been mostly about grabbing something on the go… not sitting around and lingering… and more importantly – being social. starbucks crowd inside tends to be people doing work by themselves – something you’d also probably find at other grab-and-go places that sell decent coffee and have a nice comfortable interior. When starbucks first started , there were very few places you could get a cappuccino or a latte to go.

  7. Starbucks is no longer an “urban” business and should not be considered one, no matter what its roots may be. I live in auto-oriented Charlotte. Virtually all the Starbucks outlets in Charlotte are of the ubiquitous, car-focused, suburbia model. Even in an in-town, street-car-suburb neighborhood (Myers Park, for any John Nolen junkies) Starbucks opened in a new building on the stand-alone drugstore model. They did not care about pedestrian-friendliness. Plus they burn their coffee beans.

  8. Are you in Colorado? Reminds me of suburban Denver. After spending a few weeks there, I became increasingly exhausted by the lack of infrastructure and connectedness for pedestrians and cyclists there. For many people living in this part of the country, if you can’t afford to live in the center of the city (which is getting quite expensive), you really have to rely on an auto-centric lifestyle. Most residential developments are segregated by commercial establishments – separated by wide boulevards and sometimes with no sidewalks at all. It is hard to believe that city streets being built in 2014 are not mandated to have sidewalks on both sides of the street, that pedestrian crossings from a residential blocks to a parks do not have to be marked with crosswalks.

    Planners and designers in cities like Denver are now trying to recover from decades of auto-oriented development. Embarrassingly, these professionals will plan or authorize a large bus station and park/ride node without connecting it to actual residential neighborhoods by sidewalk/footpath/bike path. Oysh. It takes an activated, informed, and angry community of residents to get these types of things fixed. This requires extra time and political savvyness that a lot of the mostly low-income people who suffer the most from developer and city agency carelessness and ignorance can’t afford to give or develop.

    In these communities, it is the grocery store that is truly the “third place.” Put a coffee shop, play area, hardware shop or library branch in there and see what happens.

  9. In my town the local coffee shop is loaded with people inside and outside on the sidewalk drinking their coffee and eating their bagel/scone. It is the city’s living room.
    What Starbucks once was “a community living room” it is now not. It is a bloated drive-thru money machine that feeds suburbia what it wants, mediocre coffee, fast.It is not any sort of social center, it’s another sprawl inducing business model.

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