My Uber driver wants you to know that downtowns are dead. Heading to Boston to attend Main Street America’s Main Street Now conference in March, I received this unprompted lecture. After attending the conference, I walked away with a very different, more hopeful, message: downtowns aren’t dead, but downtowns need to change to ensure their vibrancy and longevity. And efforts towards different, more holistic downtowns depend on prioritizing equity and inclusivity.
To understand what we mean by equity, consider the definition that Segun Idowu, Chief of Economic Opportunity and Inclusion at the City of Boston shared at the conference:
The City of Boston Economic Opportunity and Inclusion Cabinet understands equity to be “the proactive process of providing historically excluded communities the resources they need to live and thrive in Boston.”
In the context of placemaking, we define inclusivity as creating spaces that are welcoming and accessible to all. Placemaking, including in our downtowns, often focuses on being inclusive but less often includes concrete efforts toward equity. This was exemplified by Main Street Now’s Closing Plenary speaker Liz Ogbu, a designer, urbanist, and spatial justice activist focused on transforming unjust urban environments.
While sharing her work, Ogbu used the concept of ‘doing good’ versus ‘doing right.’ Doing good might include creating space that is inclusive and accessible, but to ‘do right’ one also needs to look at that space through the lens of equity and ask how it might be designed, programmed, and/or engaged with by surrounding communities who have been previously marginalized.
Doing right is not the easier path. It often involves difficult conversations, acknowledging the harms of the past, asking people and entities to accept and acknowledge their role in those harms, and perhaps most importantly, allowing the time for this to happen as part of the public space design process. However, to have truly equitable and inclusive spaces, we need to allow for and facilitate these necessary processes. In Ogbu’s words “When we tell incomplete stories we have incomplete solutions.”
NOW Hunters Point in San Francisco, interactive engagement process as the catalyst for design. Image courtesy Liz Ogdu website.
3 Takeaways from Main Streets Now
Themes of diversity, equity, and inclusion were embedded at every level of the conference. Here are a few key takeaways from sessions I attended that made the case for why these topics should be priorities for Main Street:
Prioritize Community Wealth for Every Resident
Traditional economic development often employs a top-down strategy aimed at attracting large companies and developments to a community, ultimately hoping to create jobs and investment that support small ventures and support business attraction. During the Main Idea Session on community wealth building, Fay Horwitt of Forward Cities shared how this ecosystem model “creates wealth for a small few, leaving many people behind.” Instead, Horwitt proposes flipping this model so that engagement is at the top of the pyramid, empowering residents with the power and relationships needed to develop the policies, programs, and access to capital necessary for more equitable wealth-building.
As the session description stated, the wealth that Main Streets provide communities shouldn’t be confined to only commercial districts – all residents should benefit from the shared prosperity that a vibrant and sustainable economic development plan brings to town. Prioritizing the building of community wealth on your Main Street involves creating a strong, localized economy in concert with taking bold, tangible action to address the impact that historic inequities have had on residents and community members.
Middle Village Micro Market, photo courtesy of Downtown Lansing, Inc.
Incubators are still powerful tools to foster small business growth
Business incubators remain remarkable tools that, when utilized correctly, can further equity and foster inclusivity. Providing business support and low barriers of entry allow for the testing of ideas and easier access to capital once an idea has been pressure tested. I attended a presentation on how Downtown Lansing, Inc.’s Middle Village Micro Market incubator was grown out of necessity during the COVID-19 pandemic but flourished to support two business cohorts – both of which demonstrated gender and racial diversity beyond the existing downtown business mix. Each cohort consists of 6-8 women-owned and minority-owned businesses that receive business programming and marketing support while they grow their brand, build their customer base, and test the market. Of the initial 2021 cohort, four of the businesses in the incubator went on to open permanent locations.
To create different downtowns you need to look beyond the norm
The session presented by Downtown Lansing, Inc. also introduced a very outside-the-box funding idea for a food incubator. In order to fund the new incubator, Downtown Lansing Inc. will own and manage a liquor license while also utilizing bar sales to drive the incubator’s economic sustainability. The bar business can be highly profitable – why not allow those funds to support food-based businesses?
Another thought-provoking session advocated for the role of children in downtowns. As we start to think about downtowns as more holistic environments, why not consider family amenities and expand our definition of who could and should live downtown? This session, titled “Welcome to the Playground”, focused on actionable ways that daycares can be built into private developments to attract potential anchor tenants. The session highlighted the Community Building Children’s Center (CBCC), which was established in 2002 when Community Building redeveloper Jim Sheehan partnered with Lynne Sanders to create an on-site child care facility to serve the families working in the Community Building. As more and more parents are working at home, unique and in-building childcare could be a solution to a decades-long but ever-changing need.
As was suggested by this recent Curbed article, looking at downtown’s health through more than a commercial vacancy lens helps us build downtowns that can be more responsive to market changes and foster a more diverse business mix, ultimately creating more wealth at the local level.
At Fourth Economy, we blend quantitative analysis with robust community engagement to tell complete stories that result in complete solutions for our clients. Are you interested in talking about how your downtown can think differently and create complete solutions? Just want to chat about Spike Lee’s oeuvre? I’d love to hear from you at [email protected].