Ten Things: Downtowns

This is the first in a series of “ten things you can do without a plan!”  Creating a plan is important to document a community’s shared vision and to provide the recommendations on how to achieve that vision.  However, there are some recommendations that are almost universal and a community does not need a plan to implement them.  Some of these are quick and easy while others may require more in terms of timeline, coordination, and money.  All of them are proven ways to improve your downtown.

  1. Talk to your businesses and property owners: Your downtown businesses and property owners are the lifeblood of downtown.  Provide formal and informal opportunities to communicate with them (quarterly meetings, visits to their stores, point of contact in City Hall, online surveys, etc.)  It’s a matter of building a relationship to achieve mutual success.
  2. Ensure downtown is safe and clean: This one seems obvious but municipalities don’t always dedicate the resources to making sure it happens on a consistent basis.  A BID (Business Improvement District) may be one way to make sure downtown is looking its best and is inviting to all residents.  A couple of ways to test this are to answer these questions: would my mother or grandmother feel comfortable here?  It is comfortable to push a baby stroller or bring small children here?
  3. Regulate use of the public way: You don’t have to go to Paris to experience “cafe culture.”  Activate your downtown sidewalks by allowing (and regulating) sidewalk cafes, sandwich boards, seasonal displays, etc. as appropriate for your community.  For example in the South, shade is critical if you expect people to walk around and spend time outdoors in your downtown.  This may mean requiring awnings or arcades to provide shade.
  4. Review your signage regulations: Signage regulations exist primarily for business identification.  Some communities are too loose with their regulations and some, arguably, too strict.  You can find the right balance by reviewing your signage regulations and making appropriate amendments.  Involve your downtown businesses in the discussion to see what is working and what’s not.  The most memorable places we visit are due in part to signage regulations that allow for some fun and creativity without jeopardizing community character.
  5. Make parking a hot commodity: Every community worries about parking in their downtown.  The answer is not always to build more parking.  It also involves location, pricing, and the quality of the walk from car to destination.  Proven techniques such as shared parking and policies for employee parking can help better manage downtown parking.
  6. Bury overhead utilities: When the opportunity arises (e.g., through a major road project), bury overhead utilities in your downtown.  This is one of the more difficult things to implement due to cost and coordination but can have a major visual impact on your downtown.
  7. Create a robust calendar of events:  To attract people to your downtown, businesses and civic facilities are not enough.  Downtown should be the first thing to pop into people’s minds when they are wondering where to go or what to do.  A vibrant downtown relies on people and people are attracted to events.
  8. Partner on initiatives: Municipal staff and elected officials don’t have to do it all.  Sometimes the most appropriate role for them to play is the role of convener.  Work with your Chamber of Commerce, civic organizations, schools, sister agencies, and institutions to achieve shared goals.
  9. Remember you only have one downtown: Every city has only one downtown.  Because of its special nature, downtown needs to be prioritized and even protected.  This may mean revising your zoning to promote or require certain uses in downtown and not letting certain uses creep out to the edges of town.  Many cities are still grappling with the effects on downtown of malls built 30-40 years ago.  Today people want authentic, local character and downtown will always be the best place to experience it.
  10. Speak with one voice: A strong downtown includes more than shopping and events.  Keep civic facilities such as city hall, community centers, schools, the post office, library, etc., in downtown.  Make sure that all units of government “speak with one voice” on the importance of downtown by locating their facilities there.