The pandemic has thrown the benefits of urban density into doubt as recently untethered work-from-home employees flee city centers, driven by fear of COVID-19, lack of the usual draws like nightclubs and restaurants, and lower costs of living elsewhere. As people hunker down at home and grocery stores become major sites of outbreaks, one grocery chain has managed to implement low-cost but wildly effective measures to keep its employees safe and its sales at pre-pandemic levels. According to Nate Cherry, Trader Joe’s has managed to “incentivize the right, community-oriented behaviors” using “functional problem-solving, practical solutions, better data mining and analysis, and more flexibility” that have helped the popular chain thrive during the pandemic.
Trader Joe’s,with an employee infection rate of 2.4% (far below the 20% averaged by other grocery stores) has implemented small but powerful changes that offer valuable lessons for cities. As a hyper-local amenity, their stores mainly serve users that live within on or two miles, reducing customers’ reliance on transportation for basic necessities—a worthy goal for neighborhoods and a cornerstone of the recent “15-minute city” movement. The store also provides an excellent example of space management in their parking lots. “Similarly, one of the easiest things we can do as planners is to more intelligently manage the infrastructure we have — specifically, sidewalks, which can be better structured to accommodate passive and active areas, as well as seating and landscape areas.” Other tools that would be useful anywhere include sanitation infrastructure(in the case of Trader Joe’s, visible hand-washing stations), attention to proper ventilation, and a flexibility to implement temporary solutions quickly and cost-effectively.
Planners must look for the opportunities and tweaks that will allow us to resume urban life with all the things we love about it more safely and equitably. “Our cities of tomorrow might be much like the ones of today, just a bit less crowded, with access to more resources and managed with greater responsiveness — like your favorite grocery store.”