Sunday, March 8, 2015

Antifragility in Four Corners part 1: What does it mean to be antifragile?

Welcome to our series on antifragility.  Over the next three posts, we will detail how the Four Corners commercial district is antifragile because of it's age and form.  Before this series begins, however, it is important to explain what antifragility is, as the term is relatively unknown.

I learned about antifragility through Strong Towns, a grassroots movement based in Minnesota which focuses on making cities strong and resilient.  Strong Towns emphasizes the importance of the traditional development pattern as a means of keeping communities financially solvent, which ensures long term prosperity through the tenets of antifragility.  The concept of antifragility was formulated by Lebanese scholar and statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who has written several books on the topics of randomness, probability, and uncertainty.

In brief, antifragility is defined by that which gains from disorder.  The antifragile is more than simply robust, since that which is robust does not gain from shocks and stressors, it simply recovers from them and stays the same.  The antifragile not only recovers from unforeseen events, but it is made stronger by them.  So while the term may sound negative because it starts with "anti", it is actually a very good thing to be antfragile.

Let us examine what antifragilty means in the context of a community like ours.  Thankfully, Four Corners bears many elements of antifragility.  While we do have some fragile elements, we are in a better position than many other suburbs.  A community is antifragile if it can thrive in the face of unforeseen events such as business closings, disasters, or demographic changes.

This shopping center, while not filled with high end stores and lacking sufficient parking, is still much more valuable than larger auto-oriented shopping centers further out Route 29.  In a later post, we'll explore why this is more valuable.  Image from Google Street View. 

Over the years, the Four Corners commercial district has seen many changes.  Restaurants and stores have come and gone, many have suffered fires, and road widenings have restricted access to local establishments; yet businesses continue to do well here.  On paper, it would seem that many businesses that thrive in Four Corners shouldn't, since they lack things like ample parking and easy car access that are viewed as must-haves for a business to succeed in a suburban area.  For one example: try getting to Kenny's Chicken from northbound Colesville Road, then try to find a close parking spot.  It's very difficult to access due to the intersection design, and Kenny's has no designated parking, so how is it still open?  Looking across the road, the Woodmoor Shopping Center doesn't have ample parking considering the number of stores it has (only 3-4 spaces per business), meaning parking is limited at certain times of day, yet it continues to thrive.  How?

The antifragility of Four Corners has allowed the commercial district to succeed despite numerous changes and unforeseen circumstances, and this success has contributed to the stability of the surrounding neighborhoods.  Unfortunately, not all communities enjoy the same level of antifragility that we do.  Looking up Route 29 to Burtonsville Crossing, the shopping center which is now almost completely vacant due to a domino effect of business closings, we see an example of a fragile form of development.  While the bypass of Columbia Pike didn't help matters, the shopping center's failure can be most closely linked to the relocation of Giant, its main anchor, to a new shopping center across the road.  Why was it that the relocation of a single business caused the swift decline of the entire shopping center, and what lessons can be learned from that?  What makes shopping centers like that fragile, and what makes the Four Corners commercial district antifragile?

This series will look at the ways in which Four Corners is antifragile, and how we could minimize the fragilities that do exist here.  We will demonstrate this antifragility by looking at the value per-acre of commercial property in Four Corners, and comparing it with other shopping centers and commercial spaces in more auto-oriented areas of the county.  We will then discuss how future development in eastern Montgomery County can follow the financially sustainable pattern of antifragility.

For more details about the concept of antifragilty, I suggest listening to this podcast , or if you are really interested, read one of Taleb's books on the subject which are available at local libraries.  Stay tuned for more.   



  1. Very interesting post. I shared a link to it with several local civic associations via I look forward to future articles in the series.

  2. Woodmoor only has 3/4 spaces per business? Even counting all the parking in the back?

    1. Yes, the shopping center has 220 parking spaces total for ~50 business, and since larger businesses like the Market, CVS, Starbucks, and Chipotle draw more than 4 people at a time, it leaves the other stores and offices with even fewer spaces.