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The Greening of Main Street

 Downtown Walla Walla. Courtesy of Downtown Walla Walla Foundation.

With the recent publication of Older, Smaller, Better: Measuring how the character of buildings and blocks influences urban vitality, there is increasing evidence that green development on main streets and in downtowns has a positive influence on urban vitality. This report from the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Green Lab (which is based in Seattle) has heightened interest in sustainable, green development on older main streets as well as in developing downtowns.

The following is the primary finding documented in the report:
Analysis of data from three major American cities [San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.] shows that areas with a mix of older, smaller buildings perform better than districts with larger, newer structures when tested against a range of economic, social, and environmental outcome measures.

The green building movement, spearheaded by the U.S. Green Building Council, has been around for a while now, and has expanded into a broader look at green communities as a whole. A key piece of a green community is a sustainable downtown.  This means sustainability from a financial viewpoint as well as from environmental and social perspectives.

Since its founding in 1980, the national Main Street program has evolved into a coast-to-coast network of more than 2,000 programs and leaders who use the Main Street approach to rebuild the places and enterprises that create sustainable, vibrant communities.  The four primary focuses of the Main Street method are organization, promotion, design, and economic structuring. These principles (topics?) lend themselves to a sustainable approach to downtown revitalization.

What are the Elements of a Successful, Sustainable Main Street?

Drawing on several recent articles about downtown development,[i] I have identified some of the key elements of a successful main street:
  • Central location and available infrastructure
  • Walkability - a superior pedestrian experience including an attractive streetscape
  • Economic resiliency, including diverse viable local businesses, and organic growth
  • Energy efficiency, such as district energy
  • Density, but at human scale
  • Historic preservation – reuse of existing structures
  • Open space, green space, trees, and gathering places
  • Mixed commercial and residential uses
  • Transit – where feasible, transit can play an important part in reducing automobile traffic.

In his excellent article on “Incorporating Sustainability into Downtown Master Plans & Codes,” Nick Kalogeresis emphasizes that a downtown comprehensive plan is one of the most important sustainability documents a main street community can have.  The plan reaffirms downtown’s role as the economic, cultural, and social center of the community.

The tools of historic preservation -- protecting cultural heritage, identity, and character, and telling the stories of the people who make places great – are especially applicable to main streets in downtowns and neighborhood business districts. Traditional main streets tend to have central locations and good walkability, which result in reduced driving and associated emissions.

Preservation Green Lab Report – Green Principles for Cities

The key principles identified in the Older, Smaller, Better Preservation Green Lab report reflect many of the basic elements of a green main street and can help to guide downtown development:
  • Realize the efficiencies of older buildings and blocks
  • Fit new and old together at a human scale
  • Support neighborhood evolution, not revolution
  • Steward the streetcar legacy where it exists
  • Make room for the new and local economy
  • Make it easier to reuse small buildings.

Successful Green Main Street Initiatives

The following examples from communities in Washington and other states provide useful models for revitalizing and creating sustainable main streets:
  • Bothell Main Street Enhancement - While not officially a green main street project, these improvements embody many of the principles of green main street design.
  • Wisconsin Main Street Green, Wisconsin Environmental Initiative - State initiative focused on cultivating, educating, and supporting businesses that make a strong commitment to the environment. The program involves leading “ecopreneurs” that are implementing innovative "best practices" and technologies to benefit the community and environment.
  • Colorado Sustainable Main Streets Initiative - Pilot program started in April 2010. Offers a collaborative, integrated process to leverage technical and financial resources to help communities enhance the sustainability of their downtowns
  • San Diego, CA Sustainable North Park Main Street - California’s first Sustainable Main Street program.

Concluding Thoughts

This post emphasizes concepts and principles essential to historic main streets and older downtowns. Many of the same ideas can be applied in suburban and developing downtowns even without historic buildings. These ingredients can help newer communities that desire a vibrant, lively main street atmosphere and a distinctive local identity. They are relevant to cities and towns of all sizes and to neighborhood business centers as well as downtowns.

[i] What makes a good main street work? Blog post by Kaid Benfield, Better Cities & Towns, May 28, 2014

Incorporating Sustainability into Downtown Master Plans & Codes, by Nick Kalogeresis, Main Street News, May/June 2011 – Excellent article about sustainable elements and policies of downtown plans, design guidelines, zoning ordinances, and other planning tools

What Main Street Can Teach Us About Sustainable Preservation, by Ric Cochrane, Associate Director of Preservation Green Lab, Main Street Story of the Week, March 27, 2014

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Photo of Carol Tobin

About Carol Tobin

Carol served as one of MRSC's Planning Consultants and wrote about a wide variety of local government planning issues. She is now retired.