This has been the autumn of our discontent with banks around the world. And much as I hate to pile on, I feel obliged to point out one of the banking industry’s most ubiquitous sins (albeit a minor one compared to reducing the global economy to rubble). To be clear, though, I bring this up mainly because I’ve recently discovered a simple, easily deployable, universally applicable solution to this particular fiduciary problem.
Anyway, first to the dirty deed itself: In cities around the world, banks ruin complete streets. They squat stolidly on prime retail corners and sprawl across wide stretches of otherwise bustling high streets. They lurk behind bland, unwelcoming storefronts, lock their doors early and most of them stay closed all day on busy weekend shopping days. At every turn, they re-enact their ruinous attack on the world’s economy in street-level urban design miniature. Show me a bank branch, and I’ll show you a blank space wreaking havoc on its immediate urban environment.
Here’s a prime example, taken just days ago in Montreal (where, as I’ll explain, they’ve invented a marvelous cure-all for this urban affliction):
An RBC branch at the corner of Laurier and Parc in Montreal's Plateau neighborhood
I should acknowledge before I go on that I realize the storefront bank on a prominent retail street is pretty much as old as capitalism itself, and that not every storefront has to be an active space 24/7. That said, banks are uniquely ubiquitous on urban landscape, particularly in prime shopping and walking districts, even as the need for physical banking infrastructure grows smaller with each direct-deposited paycheck and bill paid online. What was once an essential, almost daily need -- the visit to the local bank branch -- is now for most people little more than an occasional nuisance. If we’re going to the branch, it’s because we absolutely have to, not because we happened to wander by and notice the sign advertising mutual fund options. Banks want to be central, in other words, but they don’t need street frontage.
Now, before I proceed to the most elegant solution, I’d like to note that I saw a fantastic interim measure on the streets of that gleaming beacon of sustainable innovation whose praises I sing seemingly ever other post around here: Germany.
I was in Bremen, a very old, elegant city with a significant student population. I was walking along the main drag near the university when I happened upon this street scene:
Now, you’ll notice the bank building to the left in the foreground -- your typical bland corporate bank façade, cold and indifferent to the vibrant street, the branch already closed in the late afternoon. But notice in the middle distance? How there’s all this bustling activity on the street itself?
Take a look from another angle and the picture becomes clearer:
Next door, where the grey stone gives way to pale orange, a busy little café is just beginning to fill in for the evening rush. But look at what’s happening on the street out front: the café’s outdoor patio simply continues the length of the bank’s façade. Such a simple thing, essentially cost-free, obvious and effortless. If it does anything at all to the bank’s street frontage, it makes it substantially more welcoming. The street wins, the café wins, and the bank can carry on with its business keeping bankers' hours without intruding on the vibrant, livable, complete street out front.
I’m used to finding stuff like this in Europe, of course. They invented café culture, after all, and no self-respecting European urbanite would live in a neighborhood without ample café seating from which to watch the world stroll by. So imagine my surprise to find the whole idea of banks and cafes deepened and refined on the streets of a North American city. Though, to be fair, it was the streets of that most European of New World metropolises -- Montreal.
Here’s the scene at the corner of Laurier and Parc kitty corner to the bland one above:
Doesn’t look like much at first, but of course it’s blustery late November in Canada, and the discerning eye will recognize the skeleton of a patio there on the sidewalk, awaiting the return of summer. The confusing thing is that, as locals know, those blue awnings in the background are the signature of Banque Laurentienne. What gives?
Well, check out the sign above the entrance:
This is indeed a branch of Banque Laurentienne (aka Laurentian Bank). But it also bears the telltale nameplate of Van Houtte, Quebec’s homegrown equivalent to Starbucks. So which is it? Startlingly, it's both.
Step inside, and marvel at the dimensions of perhaps the world’s first fully integrated bank-café.
In the foreground is your typical chain coffee shop. But in the distance, warm dark wood gives way to the cool blond and bright signage of the bank branch. Here’s a closer look:
That right there, folks, is the most seamless, harmonious marriage of neighborhood coffee shop and workaday bank branch I’ve ever seen.
I was startled to find out, after a bit of digging, that it’s not even terribly new. There are two Laurentian-Van Houtte joint ventures in Montreal, which the bank calls “Espresso Bank-Cafes.” The first opened back in 2004 and the one I visited has been open since May 2008. “Our objective with the Espresso Bank-Café is to create an attractive and surprising point of sale,” a Laurentian executive said at the time of the first café’s opening. “We want customers who come into the branch to have a different experience. As a neighborhood bank, we will also provide information seminars to demystify personal banking.”
Never mind all that, though: I want a bank that gives its storefront and its street frontage back to the neighborhood. In these days of rage, maybe it’s time for a healing, collaborative Occupy Sidewalks movement. The one good thing I can say for banks right now, in any case, is that a couple of them have learned how to be better neighbors.
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All photos by Chris Turner