Main Streets are a quintessential part of American culture. For generations they have served as the center of small town and neighborhood life. They have been mythologized in literature (think Thornton Wilder’s Our Town), were the backdrop for Robert Preston’s Music Man, and have been immortalized by musicians from John Mellencamp to the Rolling Stones.
In the post-war years, however, residents of suburbs and small towns around the country have watched many of their downtown commercial and social hubs wither. With the rise of the automobile, as well as other factors, more and more families moved far from town centers. Businesses eventually followed. Today, sprawling development continues to stretch out towns while big box retailers take away trade from the Main Street shops – the butcher, the hardware store, the five-and-dime. In many communities, high vacancy rates have replaced a bustling streetscape.
An important part of American culture is under threat.
A key to revitalizing these downtowns is linking preservation and economic growth – not preservation anchored solely in history and design aesthetics, but practical preservation focused on place-based economic development. In other words, capitalizing on what makes each Main Street or downtown area visually and culturally unique.
Unfortunately, a complicated web of government policies and investments can make it difficult, and sometimes illegal, for rehabilitation efforts or new construction to reflect traditional Main Street aesthetics with street-level businesses, upper-story housing, and wide, pedestrian friendly sidewalks. State government has an important role to play in overcoming these barriers.
But what does this role look like? In the second part of this series about downtown design and revitalization, we will speak with state leaders to get an inside look at how state government supports these cultural hubs.
The Governors’ Institute on Community Design®, a NEA leadership initiative in partnership with the Environmental Protection Agency and Smart Growth America, tackles state policy related to a wide range of growth, development and design challenges. The Governors’ Institute works directly with governors on policies and processes to bridge the gap between state government, local government, and on-the-ground placemaking initiatives.
Want to hear more about creative placemaking and design projects at the NEA? Visit the Art Works blog.
Check out the other posts in this series: