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Re-envisioning Main Street

Main streets are at the heart of vibrant, sustainable communities. How can we invest in them?

Published on October 20, 2020

In many communities, main streets are vibrant community hubs were people come together to shop, eat, play and support local businesses. 

Yet many have been struggling for years. Well before COVID-19, a lack of transit accessibility and foot traffic were putting many formerly successful streets at risk. Now, with pandemic restrictions threatening the survival of many local businesses, our main streets are more vulnerable than ever. 

 That’s just what Ken Greenberg, Principal of Greenberg Consultants, Dionne Baux, Director of UrbanMain, and Jay-Ann Gilfoy, CEO of the Vancity Community Investment Bank discussed during the “The Life, Death and Rebirth of Main Street” panel, moderated by Mary Rowe, President and CEO of the Canadian Urban Institute, at Future Cities Canada: #Unexpected Solutions. Here are some of the ideas shared.   

When a Street Works — And When it Doesn’t 

According to Greenberg, a main street thrives when it’s part of a diverse, walkable community. 

“It works when it’s part of an ecosystem — it doesn’t work in isolation,” he shares. “It needs a neighbourhood, people who are able to walk to and along it.” 

In many cities, a “cars-first” design mentality has isolated main streets. Residents live away from the businesses that serve them, and require a car to get anywhere they need to go.  

In contrast, the most successful main streets are part of a whole walkable, sustainable community. Residents who live and work nearby can easily access the space through walking, cycling or transit, and are served by a range of local businesses, public services and green space.  

“A main street needs 18-hour life,” says Greenberg. “Not just people who sleep nearby, but people who live and work nearby. A day-time population is very important, as is transit-access, walkability and a range of businesses and services.” 

The Challenges of COVID-19 

Add to these existing challenges an unprecedented pandemic, and things can become dire. 

According to Dionne Baux, research conducted by the National Main Street Center (NMSC) found that in April 2020 7.5 million U.S. small businesses were at risk of permanently closing over the coming 5 months, while another 3.5 could close in just two. 

The spring lockdowns were incredibly hard on businesses, which saw a drastic drop in revenue. As restrictions began to loosen, many got creative with their offerings. 

Baux says curbside pick up, increased outdoor patio space and online ordering all have a role to play in supporting small businesses as the pandemic drags on. 

One piece of good news: NMSC research also found that 60% of shoppers surveyed plan to buy locally heading into the holiday season. The number reflects both a potential boon to small businesses, and a strong community connection to main streets and the businesses that serve them. 

Jay-Ann Gilfoy notes that, in research conducted by the Vancity Community Investment Bank in partnership with the Canadian Urban Institute, small Canadian businesses that have continued to thrive during COVID-19 have a strong connection with their community. 

Return to Main Street 

And there’s more good news — during COVID-19, city residents have embraced many elements of sustainable, walkable communities. 

“I’ve never seen anything quite like this,” says Greenberg. “In Toronto, for example, people are discovering urban muscles they didn’t know they had.” 

New cycling infrastructure, increased park use and expanded outdoor patios are just a few changes that have brought residents out into their communities during the pandemic. 

“They’re discovering they enjoy life in public spaces,” says Greenberg. “Once you’ve had a taste of that you’re not going back.” 

Residents being willing to walk and bike to local businesses, and enjoying public space like expanded patios once reserved for cars, are things that could support main streets well after the pandemic. 

In the meantime, Baux says that local businesses must continue to work on creative solutions to serve their customers — including a strong online presence and omni-channel service. 

Hear More at #UnexpectedSolutions  

Watch the full panel discussion with Greenberg, Baux, Gilfoy and Rowe via Future Cities Canada: #Unexpected Solutions — six weeks of thought-provoking keynotes and inspiring workshops. Register today for over 60 free virtual sessions, running from October 20 to November 26. The panel is brought to you by Vancity Community Investment Bank.