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Solace blog

19th January 2017

Reinvigorating our town centres

I recently came across a thought-inspiring podcast series Local Gov Life, piloted earlier this year by the International City/County Management Association (ICMA). The series provides a mix of stories, insights, and advice from local government leaders in the United States (U.S.) and Canada.

In particular, Episode 3 on Reinvigorating Downtown caught my attention. It offers international perspectives on how local development and engagement initiatives can help create a greater sense of community amongst citizens and boost their local economies. Specifically, the podcast takes an in-depth look at the town centre initiatives of three different communities in the U.S. and Canada and it discusses the strategies their local government leaders are using to reinvigorate their town centres.

Solace is always keen to promote learning from international examples and share best practice from other countries and the podcast will hopefully provide you with inspiration to pursue innovative ideas to transform your own local areas and bring your town centres to life.

The episode was inspired by a PM Magazine story in the summer on Revitalisation and Main Street Transformation by Patrice Frey, President and Chief Executive Officer of the National Main Street Centre in Chicago, Illinois. In her article, Patrice sets out how local leaders can use a strategy called the ‘Main Street Approach which has helped communities to revitalise their city centres and effectively achieve their vision for success over the past 35 years.[1] It is worth a read for those interested.

In the podcast, Wally Bobkiewicz, City Manager, and Damir Latinovic, Neighbourhood and Land Use Planner at the City of Evanston, Illinois talk about their strategies to attract and retain businesses in their town centres.[2] Part of their plan is offering newcomers resources through the City’s “business toolbox” of strategies, aimed to help new businesses in the area to address various issues – including an offer of transport passes to businesses, which also helps with the development of new buildings as that there is less parking required, as well as support for façade
improvements. All these initiatives have contributed to the city’s success. Evanston also makes high quality design of new developments a priority, which helps attract both businesses and residents into the city centre area.

David Rauch, Business Analyst from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, shares an inspiring story about how he was able to attract more citizens to the town centre using a unique strategy based on the power of music. Edmonton launched an innovative outdoor piano program, which was aimed at greater involvement of citizens in the community by animating public spaces and making them fun and engaging. The project succeeded thanks to a commendable community effort, volunteer work and working jointly with community organisations. Launched for $1,000, the project ended up
being a hit with the residents, helping citizens connect with the city and with each other, and it helped some citizens in need. An impactful moment of the project was caused by the publication of a video of a gentleman who had been living on the street for 30 years and never been taught how to play the piano, playing an original song. The video went viral on YouTube and the proceeds from the licensing were invested into buying a piano for the man – the first piano he had ever owned.

The Street Piano project in London’s St. Pancras International station is based around a similar concept. The programme, ‘Play Me, I’m Yours’, originated in a simple idea: to change the dynamics of a public space by getting people talking in a local launderette. Street Pianos are designed to provoke people into engaging, activating and claiming ownership of their urban landscape. Their website provides an interconnected resource for the public to express themselves, to communicate with one another on a local level, but also within an international arena with people from all over the world.

As the podcast highlights, forward-looking, inclusive and innovative strategies that improve the mix and vitality of town centre businesses, cultural institutions, and housing options for residents, are vital to successful place management and transformation. However, there are other approaches which can lead to a success of the town centre such as delivering quality design in development and considering transport accessibility, the right marketing, and branding of the town centre, and even the successful development of a professionally managed town centre organisation. A proof
that turning around run-down town centres can have fantastic results if managed well is set out at the end of the podcast in a story about how 25 years ago citizens spoke up to stop a plan to eradicate the centre of a town which has an award-winning town centre today. However, this example also highlights the negative side to downtown revitalisation which should be kept in mind.

There is no simple one-size-fits-all key to turning around local town centres, as solutions need to be tailored to the requirements of each place and the needs of local residents which vary across geographical areas. However, there are some good lessons to be drawn from other countries and we hope this podcast will inspire you to apply these to the challenges you face in your local areas.

[1] The ‘Main Street Approach’ originated in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. It combined professional city centre management and volunteer engagement to help communities prevent or reverse the deterioration of the character of city centres and their older and historic structures, caused by sub-urbanisation and urban renewal efforts, by focusing on the overall health of these areas.
[2] Evanston is ranked as having the 10 best downtown in the U.S. in a ranking published by the website Liveability:

By Martina Cicakova, Policy Officer, Solace