Bringing Plans to Action in Small-Town Downtowns
As planning consultants, we must operate on many different levels. When we make plans on the scale of a city or a region, we usually get it right. But when we plan for a neighborhood or district, we rarely do enough to fully incorporate the local stakeholders who invest their time, energy, money and passion in the place.
This phenomena is most obvious in rural small towns. Most of these places have neither the money to make large investments nor the demand for shiny new developments. But they have an enormous untapped asset: the local people and institutions who are eager to invest their time, money, energy, and passion into a downtown. While we’re the experts in our field, they’re the experts in the community. And without them, no zoning rules or infrastructure improvements will make a lick of difference. Without them, the community would be a ghost town.
When I walk around and talk to the business owners and scattered people walking down the street, I hear the same thing:
This could be such a thriving place. But it’s not. It could be a place that generates economic activity, helps keep the young people in town, attracts visitors from hours away, and showcases the great history of our community. But it isn’t. The street is almost empty. And we don’t know what to do.
Sometimes, these communities scrape together some money and hire a planning consultant (or consulting firm) to offer a fresh eye. And sometimes the consultant comes out with a great plan to guide the growth of the city for decades to come. But the plan usually sits on the shelf. Little happens. And ten years later, they might find a little more money and come up with another plan.
So why does this happen?
When our profession makes plans, we are doing something that’s necessary. But it’s not sufficient.
At best, we are giving them the guidance that they need to handle growth, and to manage new funds when they come in. We’re helping them to set the zoning that will handle new development, make the standards for new streets, redesign the civic buildings, create new parks and public spaces, manage capital improvements, build parking, incentivize housing and retail, etc. In some cases, we even take a step further, and create a “to-do list” that includes some of the type of guidance that a Main Street Manager could implement.
Our best plans are very good at setting the table.
But until there’s food on the table, it doesn’t matter.
The principles of good planning can be implemented on every level, from the storefront to the region. When we get to the more fine-grained level (such as a downtown or neighborhood) it’s important to collaborate directly with the stakeholders on the ground who will actually make things happen.
This means it’s essential to apply our expertise to very specific questions. Examples might include:
Can an event at the downtown plaza take advantage of large crowds which fill the street after theatrical performances?
What’s the best way to lay out outdoor seating in a way that will enliven the public realm?
Is there an opportunity to connect people with good business ideas to empty storefronts?
Can we connect a talented local artist with businesses that have empty storefront displays?
Can special events be tweaked to better reach the long-term goals of the downtown?
Can we hold a monthly movie night or musical performance which would fill the downtown with locals?
These questions are in no way separate from the broader area of our expertise. If the stakeholders on the ground are not doing these things, none of our fancy Form-Based Codes are going to help them. And the most walkable streets in the world are not going to help if there are little reasons for people to walk on them.
We need to come in with humility, as a resource for the people who want our help. Our fresh perspective needs to be offered to the Main Street Manager; the Chamber of Commerce Director; the downtown business association; the historic society; and the libraries, churches, schools, businesses, and property owners who have a stake in the downtown.
Many of these towns are extraordinary. They just need a jump start. And after they get that, they’ll thank themselves if they have a plan in place to make sure the new energy enhances the character of the town and their quality of life. Not only see the plan in action, they'll know that they helped create it.