When we speak with Main Street managers, they are rarely surprised when we bend their ear about how their town or city’s most fundamental public space is the street.
As they know all too well, streets are not only how we get from point A to point B. They are also the connective tissue that ties businesses into a downtown and people into a community. Yet many Main Streets leaders and placemakers don’t feel equipped or empowered to participate in the processes that shape the streets in their care, whether they involve traffic engineering, public transit, parking policies, or streetscape enhancements.
Last week at the 3rd International Placemaking Week in Chattanooga, TN, Main Street America and Project for Public Spaces released Navigating Main Streets as Places: A People-First Transportation Toolkit to help Main Street leaders, transportation officials, and placemakers evaluate streets and transportation through the lens of placemaking, balance the needs of mobility and other street activities, and build stronger relationships with other decision-makers and the community. This free, one-stop-shop toolkit features best practices for rural downtowns and urban commercial districts through three platforms: a downloadable handbook, an online resource library, and a free, four-part webinar series beginning on October 29th.
The toolkit builds on Project for Public Spaces previous collaboration with Main Street America to provide placemaking training for Main Street managers around the country. In 2016 and 2017, training sessions were held in Alabama, Connecticut, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Wyoming, reaching about 650 managers in total and generating $14 million in new investment. After the trainings, multiple states have also created placemaking grant programs or used existing grant funds for placemaking projects.
“Relationships between Main Street managers and departments of transportation vary a lot,” says Lindsey Wallace, a co-author of the toolkit and Director of Strategic Projects and Design Services at the Main Street America. “Some have good, communicative relationships, and some have none at all.”
Laura Torchio, Deputy Director of Transportation at Project for Public Spaces, agrees and adds, “People in general tend to view departments of transportation as a decision-making entity they have no influence on. They've learned to live with a system they probably never thought of as flexible or changeable.”
Through this toolkit we hope to break down that stigma, and show Main Street leaders and placemakers how to work collaboratively with their department of transportation (DOT). “The other crucial piece is for Main Street leaders and DOTs to build relationships before they need anything from each other,” notes Wallace. This ensures that when new opportunities or challenges arise, collaboration happens early and often. “We even include simple talking points to help them get the conversations started!”
Streets are unique among public spaces in their need to balance mobile and stationary uses. While a park or a square may accommodate a little through traffic of people on foot or wheels, on the street the needs of transit, deliveries, and private vehicles, as well as people on foot or wheels makes the task of negotiating traffic crucial.
But traffic engineering has not always had a positive affect on Main Streets. In particular, the suburbanization of housing, work, and retail, partly enabled by the Interstate Highway System, helped to draw foot traffic away from traditional commercial districts throughout much of the 20th century. Meanwhile, desperate attempts to alleviate traffic congestion downtown and compete with the suburbs on their own terms often led to road widenings, higher traffic speeds, fewer pedestrian amenities, and the proliferation of surface parking lots. These changes added up to commercial districts that make the simple act of walking or rolling down the sidewalk more unsafe and unpleasant.
Navigating Main Streets as Places aims to help realign the interests of transportation officials and those of Main Street leaders, placemakers, business owners, and community members through three chapters on the why, what, and how of making people-first streets:
With this toolkit in hand, we look forward to hearing about how you are remaking the streets in the heart of your community into drivers of healthy and sustainable transportation, equitable access to downtown, a thriving local economy, and a lively and lovable public realm.
"My hope is that what people read, see, hear, and engage with in this toolkit serves as a constant reminder of the positive potential of collaborating with one another intentionally and respectfully," says Shaylee Zaugg, a co-author of the toolkit and Junior Project Associate at Project for Public Spaces. "A powerful vision for a street is rooted in the power of all its people. By taking the time to humbly communicate, evaluate, and co-create visions together, our streets can become powerful places to be, to move through, and to build our community's life around."