How Do We Bring Back Our Main Streets?

Featuring Charles Montgomery, Founding Principal, Happy City; Michael Shuman, Director of Local Economy Projects, Neighbourhood Associates Corporation; Jake Stacey, Vice President, VanCity Community Investment Bank; and Judith Veresuk, Executive Director, Regina Downtown BID

5 Key

A roundup of the most compelling ideas, themes and quotes from this candid conversation

1. The intersection of public health, equity and local economy

Many think of main streets simply as commercial centres, however COVID-19 has shown us that main streets are where public health, equity, and the local economy intersect. Main streets are the heart of communities of all sizes and can take many forms (from strip malls to major intersections). By making main streets walkable, connected and home to a variety of local businesses, cities can support healthy social and physical access to the goods, services and public spaces that people need.

2. We need to re-think how public space is used on main streets

By re-thinking the ways in which the physical space is used on main streets, cities can use tactical urban interventions to make main streets more equitable, accessible and profitable. “Flex zones” have been introduced in cities in California (Oakland and Mountain View) as a way to empower local business owners to use the sidewalk and parking spaces in front of their businesses to better accommodate their community – whether through increased patio space, pedestrian access or parking. The current public health crisis has highlighted the need for cities to consider how main streets can be designed more creatively to serve more people safely and effectively.

3. Anchor businesses as amenities

Local businesses are often listed as amenities in neighbourhoods by condominiums and new developments, typically setting the context for the local identity.  These anchor businesses function as more than just cafes, grocery stores, restaurants or retail, often providing support for other small businesses in the community by attracting local customers and fostering local partnerships. A more intentional approach to supporting anchor businesses as such is needed in order to ensure the succession of these businesses and the healthy function of a main street.

4. Recovery will not be replication of what was

With many main street businesses pivoting to digital platforms, the question arises as to whether digital and physical storefronts can co-exist. Is the digital main street the end of brick and mortar? Main street recovery from COVID-19 will require local businesses to develop new approaches to their business and service models, making it imperative for businesses to develop online functionality no matter what comes next.  As cities change the ways in which public spaces are accessed, businesses will need to grow in tandem.

5. Main streets run on cash flow

Federal support for small businesses will not be enough to help main streets to survive COVID-19.  Local businesses will need direct investment from community mobilization before the government is able to introduce new progressive policies that address the need for direct capital investment and tax reform. Investment in main streets through local procurement, reduced credit rates, and a community investment approach to purchasing will help small businesses through an increase in direct cash flow.