If you missed it, on Monday my colleague Jacob Moses announced a new project we’re super excited about here at Strong Towns: the Strong Towns Knowledge Base. Located at help.strongtowns.org, the Knowledge Base is a new platform dedicated to giving you—the citizen, the elected official, the city planner—the practical advice you need to take action.
Anyone can ask a question they’d like to see answered in our Knowledge Base. Anyone can post a comment with a partial answer or helpful advice. And over time, we're going to build out the base as a repository of answers, advice, links and references on all things Strong Towns.
A big part of that is by crowd-sourcing your wisdom and expertise to help us answer your questions. The Strong Towns Network knows much, much more, collectively, than the Strong Towns staff. You’re our secret weapon.
Another part of the project of filling out the Knowledge Base involves digging up and linking to some of the great content we’ve published over the years that already helps answer your burning questions, but which you might not have seen if you’re newer here (and most of you are—our audience has grown dramatically each year). Heck, I’m the Content Manager, and I routinely find great Strong Towns articles from 2015 or 2016 or earlier that even I’ve never seen.
There’s a ton of collective wisdom in this movement. The Knowledge Base is a big part of how we want to get it in front of you when you need it.
Every week on Friday morning, we’re going to post an update from the Knowledge Base—taking a new question or two that was answered that week, or maybe some excellent, insightful comments we received, and spotlighting them on our blog. Here’s the first installment.
This week, after launching the Knowledge Base on Monday, one of the first new questions submitted to us was, “How can downtowns in disinvested, midsize cities incentivize retail again? What are some cities that have successfully done this?”
Here’s a partial answer. I say “partial” because no question like this can ever be definitively and conclusively answered. The Knowledge Base is a living document, so if you’ve got more to add, head over to help.strongtowns.org and comment. The question answered below is available on the Knowledge Base itself right here.
How can downtowns in disinvested, midsize cities incentivize retail again? What are some cities that have successfully done this?
Bringing new life back to a struggling downtown is not an easy thing to do, and there's no one-size formula. The process is going to look different in every city, but here are a few questions your city's elected officials should be asking, along with involved citizens who want to see this kind of progress, groups like a Chamber of Commerce or Downtown Business Association, etc.:
• Who currently uses your downtown? What are the major employers? Is there existing retail or nightlife that draws people—is there a reason to be there after 6 p.m. on a weekday, or is it a ghost town? Take stock of the assets you're starting with.
• Do people live in your downtown? It's going to be much, much easier to interest retail businesses in an area where they have a permanent customer base. One block of typical Main Street retail requires 1,500 to 2,000 housing units within a short walk. Jason Schaefer describes how this type of insight motivated discussion about the need for residential development in downtown Grand Forks, ND. Talk with residential developers about what it would take for them to build downtown, if they're not already interested.
• Who works in your downtown? And do they venture out of their offices for lunch or happy hour? Don't assume all employers are created equal—as Arian Horbovetz warns from his experience in Utica, New York, big, institutional "campus" employers are going to add a lot less vitality to your streets than are small, local businesses.
• How connected is your downtown to the rest of your city? In a lot of small and midsize cities, it is difficult to walk downtown from adjoining neighborhoods. There may be physical barriers like large, dangerous stroads, or a forbidding sea of parking lots. There are likely low-hanging fruit projects to improve these connections and re-integrate downtown with the city. Read Chuck Marohn's thoughts on what looking for the low-hanging fruit looks like in his hometown of Brainerd, MN.
• If there is a block or two that is more lively than the rest, look at what barriers might be keeping that block or two from creating a virtuous cycle for the areas around it. For example, do you have pockets of walkable streets hemmed in by desolate areas full of parking lots? Check out the article "We Forbid What We Value Most" by Benjamin Ledford, on how parking minimums can stifle downtown revitalization.
• Make it legal, practical, and easy for businesses to start small. As small as possible. This could mean low-cost pop-up shops, like this successful experiment in Muskegon, Michigan that was one of the reasons Muskegon won our 2018 Strongest Town Contest. It could mean food trucks. It could mean a temporary pop-up farmer's market or a craft fair. Find the aspiring entrepreneurs in your city and ask them what they need, and what the barriers they face are—regulatory, practical, financial.
• Consider focusing first on attracting and nurturing the kinds of businesses that create an identity and attachment to an area: what Arian Horbovetz describes as "high experience, low commitment."
• Don't underestimate the power of public art and public events. In Fort Smith, Arkansas, a placemaking nonprofit called 64.6 has used these strategies to tremendous effect to get residents to come downtown and take pride in downtown, and new retail and housing have begun to follow. An important part of the 64.6 model is that the organization serves as a convener, sparking dialogue and collaboration among those whom have a stake in downtown's success.
In the time after this question was posted and before we put together some of the above bullet points, we received two comments:
— Derek Hofmann on 01/08/2019
Eliminating the city's sales tax would remove a disincentive against shopping elsewhere. Relax height limits, minimum setbacks, maximum floor area ratios, and minimum parking requirements in order to support more stores in the same area of land. Streamline the permitting process. Make sure it's easy for people to get in and out of shopping areas.
— Jacob Moses on 01/08/2019
Muskegon, Michigan, took an incremental approach to incentivizing retail downtown by creating low-cost pop-up shops in chalets for prospective small businesses. The pop-up shops were a success, as the city has continued to construct more chalets—plus, some of the vendors went on to have permanent storefronts in downtown. You can read more about it here: https://bit.ly/2D0NsjD.
So the discussion doesn’t have to end with the posted answer—nothing is final in the Knowledge Base. Keep piling on good advice. We might even take some of it and add to the “official” answer, as I did, by way of demonstration, with mysterious stranger Jacob Moses’s helpful comment about Muskegon.
Send us your burning questions, either by visiting help.strongtowns.org, or using channel #knowledge_base on Slack. And comment on Knowledge Base posts with your own helpful answers, too! Let’s build this thing together.
(Cover photo by Michael Coghlan via Flickr)