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Bringing Life Back To Downtown, Our Social, Cultural & Economic Hubs

[Originally Published in the Summer of 2022]

From big cities to small towns, the upending of our daily routines around work, school, travel, and much more, has had a profound impact on how we use our downtowns, Main Streets, and commercial districts. While most of these changes have been difficult, some have brought with them unique opportunities. If cities and towns are willing to embrace creativity and experimentation, they can use the lessons of the past two years as an opportunity to set themselves on a path for long-term success and sustainability.


Many big cities are heading into their third year with depleted in-office work forces, decreased downtown foot traffic, and continued damage to the social fabric of their downtowns. In cities like Boston where office occupancy rates approach barely 20% of pre-pandemic levels, it’s taking its toll on the numerous downtown businesses and institutions that depend on this footfall to support their operations. From the locally owned restaurants and cafés, to places like Boston Public Market and area cultural institutions, the limited foot traffic takes its toll on everyone.


While the future of Main Street and downtown remains highly uncertain, there are many things leaders can do now to position these districts for both short-term success and long-term resiliency.


The following guide will take you through short-term and long-term strategies for downtown and Main Street recovery. We’ll look at both the public and private realm to provide a holistic approach for your community.

SHORT-TERM STRATEGIES


Public Realm: Streets as Places

Since the earliest days of cities and towns, they have served the role of aggregator, bringing together diverse viewpoints and ideas to build, create, and constantly innovate. Town squares, plazas, and public spaces have always served as meeting points, spaces where workers in their homes and offices can gather to meet, conduct trade and commerce, and share ideas with those they may never cross paths with in their day-to-day life if it wasn’t for a happenstance meeting. The ability to break down both actual and perceived barriers in our cities and towns through creative placemaking can be a powerful one.


In New York City, for many years, thanks to their Plaza Program initiated by Janette Sadik-Khan, workers in office buildings have been able to utilize excess street spaces that have been converted into public plazas, work spaces, and vibrant, accessible spaces to gather. These public plazas allow anyone and everyone to mingle in the same space, regardless of industry, job, status, or financials. This ability to mingle and interact is much of the reason why we have cities; the ability to share ideas, lived experiences, collaborate, and learn from those with different opinions, backgrounds, and perspectives. Something that can, in large part, only happen in the public realm, a public realm that for many cities is dominated by cars and traffic.

In Montreal, in response to the pandemic and in a concerted push to increase business and social activity on commercial corridors, an investment was made in a city-wide open streets program. This program touched a number of downtown and neighborhood streets and included funding from the City to activate these spaces.


Some of these activations included outdoor dining parklets for restaurants, something more American cities and towns did to varying degrees. In Montreal, this went a step further. The City of Montreal funded the implementation of public work spaces in parklets across the city. Equipped with Wi-Fi these spaces allowed people to take meetings outdoors, spend some time working within the public realm, and encouraged more of the happenstance interactions that so many of us value and missed recently.


On Main Streets around the country an opportunity arose where less of their residential population who typically commuted into big city office jobs were now spending more time within their communities. The opportunity to reconnect these folks with a Main Street economy in a new way emerged with communities across the country finding new and creative ways to welcome people back downtown. In Norwood, Massachusetts, the town closed a small section of downtown streets to traffic and opened it to people, installing turf, tables and chairs, and lighting to create a welcoming, safe space for people to come grab a coffee, meet with friends, or just work for the day outdoors. The strategy was meant to help provide safe outdoor spaces for customers of area businesses. The plan went a step further, reconnecting an isolated town previously surrounded on all sides by traffic and helping people spending more time in town to rediscover both the commercial but also the social benefits of spending time downtown.


Public Realm: Walkability & Parking

In many communities, there is often a perception that there “isn’t enough parking” close to Main Street or downtown. For some communities, that fact may be true based on population centers and how most people access the downtown core, but for many communities, there’s merely a parking perception problem that leaves communities hamstrung to actually focus on making improvements to the downtown. Take the shopping mall for example, many people who head to a sprawling suburban shopping mall will park relatively far away from the entrance to the mall and then walk thousands of feet to a store or restaurant that they’re trying to go to and think nothing of it. On a main street or in a downtown, complaints arise when there’s not enough parking spaces right in front of where people want to go when there may be plenty just a short distance down the street, requiring a walk shorter than that at a shopping mall. It’s the perception, the mindset that individuals come to a main street with, some of which can be changed through proper messaging and improving the “walkability” of a district (check out our previous blog on conducting a walk audit to learn more).

Users walking will walk one distance from a car to a store in a mall without thinking twice but that same experience isn’t readily replicated on Main Street. Focus on the place and create a better user experience.


“People don’t come to a place for the parking, they come for the experience.”

As we’ve seen during the pandemic, parklets, outdoor dining, and open streets have shown us the true value of our streets to create better places for our commercial centers and communities when our streets aren’t just focused on moving and storing vehicles, but are used as places for people. What was once looked at as a crazy idea, eliminating parking spaces for other uses on main street, is now being viewed as an opportunity to breathe new life into tired streetscapes and places to seed the public realm with life and energy.

Focusing on the user experience over the convenience of parking is a tried and true strategy that the shopping mall used to woo shoppers in the 60s and 70s, and a strategy that main streets and downtowns should be looking to today to woo shoppers, diners, and community members back into their districts.


Public Realm: Events

Events can be a heavy lift for many main streets and commercial districts, but can pay dividends in many ways if done right and strategically to not be as heavy a lift and burden on short staffed cities, towns, and organizations. We’ve seen successful placemaking interventions surrounding events in winter months drive foot traffic to districts that would otherwise be devoid of people during the colder months. Many of the most successful events were part of a series, a routine that encouraged people to come during weekends or set days to try and prolong a changed shopping habit for many. Purchase equipment once that can then be used across a wide array of annual events and make things easier and less expensive later on.


Your goals with any successful event program should be both short AND long-term. Short-term goals include bringing people back to the physical commercial district or main street, supporting businesses while providing a safe space for community gatherings. The long term goal is so change shopping and visitation habits. Encourage the thinking that this district is a destination, not just a place to pass through or a single errand but a space for gathering, for community. That second goal, the long-term shift, is integral to building success.


PRIVATE REALM

While cities and towns look to develop long-term strategies to deal with rapid turnover in the office and retail spaces, there are steps they can take to begin to support a sustainable and robust long-term commercial economy. As many commercial centers in big cities continue to struggle to bring people back to the office, and the long-term impacts of the change in work remain unknown, it’s important for cities and towns to get ahead and prepare for what our new “work/life balance” might look like for physical space.


Many companies may be left with excess office space on a long-term lease OR smaller companies may need to locate space as we begin to return to the office in some capacity. Commercial district activity is paramount to supporting the small businesses that thrive on an office based clientele.


Private Realm: Activating Excess Office Spaces

In big cities, getting footfall numbers up in downtowns is paramount to supporting the local economies. Encouraging larger companies that may be stuck with excess office space to list it on a city hosted platform can support pairing those office opportunities with smaller companies looking for new, flexible space, willing to sublease, bringing new energy and foot traffic back to the downtown.


In small towns and on main streets, some companies may either not require workers go back into the office at all OR provide an option for a flexible schedule, requiring a need for more flexible office space along main street. Similarly to big cities, providing that local clearing house that can serve as both an easy place to list excess office space while also pairing those individuals and small companies who are looking can be a major benefit to the local economy. It supports local workers and can help support a community’s small businesses economy by having more customers in the area at different hours of the day. It also supports the long-term stability of the region, potentially concentrating enough workers in one place that a small cluster of companies could be encouraged to open up shop there.


Private Realm: Activating Vacant Retail Spaces

Cities around the world have experimented with a number of different programs to fill vacant storefronts. A vacancy tax in cities like San Francisco is an attempt at the stick method of solving this problem while cities like London have used more of a carrot model. Supporting property owners, small businesses, and creatives to fill vacant storefront spaces, supporting the local economy and creative community while seeding a neighborhood with new energy. The London program on “Meanwhile Uses” was a great example of an opportunity to take advantage of something many cities view as a blight on the neighborhood and turn it into an opportunity. Partnering with property owners to pair these small business entities with available space, break down the barriers to entry like lease negotiations, insurance and startup costs to try and make the activation as simple as possible for all parties involved.

By activating commercial retail vacancies, even on a short-term basis, neighborhoods can provide opportunity to a small fledging business, seeding the success of a local small business community that can serve as the backbone of a strong, stable and socially connected commercial district.


LONG-TERM STRATEGIES

Past planning practices centering around Euclidian ideals of separating office, retail, and residential uses have created growing problems for our downtowns and left them vulnerable to large disruptions from the office sector. The current changes in work patterns also make many who were previously in the category of a “super commuter” think twice about going back to a life spent sitting in hours of traffic or long delays during peak times on mass transit. Incorporating more housing in our big city downtowns and more office AND residential along Main Street and small town downtowns will help strengthen our communities and guard them against future economic downturns and major shifts in the future as well as just making them better places to live and work.


Long-Term Strategies: Diversity of Uses

To help gird traditional downtowns and commercial districts from future major economic or societal changes as we’ve gone through over the past two years, as well as in an effort to make our communities better places to live, we should look to reform many of this historically restrictive zoning policies aimed at separating uses. Encouraging more housing, cultural, and retail uses mixed into commercial neighborhoods through zoning and other incentive programs will eliminate some of the biggest issues around lack of foot traffic that heavily surface during the pandemic.


This lack of foot traffic provides a feeling of a lack of safety for a visitor (often a false sense), an air of “nothing happening” for passersby and a lack of customers for retail businesses who rely entirely on office workers to support their businesses. Encouraging this diversity of uses into future zoning, planning work and creative programs like short term use and cultural facilities funding will provide long term stability and sustainability to traditional downtowns and commercial districts.

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