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Why the physical environment is crucial to your downtown and small steps to make it shine

A crack in the sidewalk. A few scraps of litter. Unkempt trees. Barren, empty planters. These are all minor afflictions for our streetscapes, but in combination, present a picture that is less than welcoming. Downtown areas thrive when they tap into the image of a walkable, vibrant, eclectic district with historic buildings and quirky businesses. Visitors are drawn to the unique atmosphere, the local offerings, and the feeling of community. Yet to overlook the physical qualities of a downtown, especially the streetscape, is to forget what makes the spark of those unique businesses and attractions truly stand out. Downtown streetscapes have a multitude of functions, such as transporting visitors and vehicles or providing shade and shelter. But their most crucial function is to create the atmosphere and environment that nurtures downtown businesses and attracts outside attention.

A streetscape at its simplest is the design and appearance of the street. This may not seem like much, but streetscapes include sidewalks and other design elements like planters and trees–they are essentially everything that stretches from the front of a building facade to the other facade on the opposite side of the street. That’s a lot of real estate! While a lot of energy may go into the establishment and support of businesses downtown, the streetscape is the network that connects these attractions and stores. Pedestrians must walk on sidewalks and cross roads to reach their destinations. Visitors may stop for a meal to go, seeking a place to sit and eat while they people watch. When people visit your downtown, they may intend to visit a specific location. In reality, they spend a great deal of time in the streetscape as well.

It is in the streetscape that decisions are made. No matter how perfect that restaurant is for a family dinner, if Grandma can’t get there because there are no curb cuts or ramps and the sidewalk is uneven, your family isn’t going to come. No matter how quirky your thrift store is, if it’s too dangerous to cross the road to get there, your thrifters will not come. Streetscape is environment, and environment shapes behavior. Is your streetscape lacking? Concerned now that your scraggly bushes and faded crosswalks are putting off your visitors? Don’t fret yet. Streetscapes are important but making small impactful changes may be easier than you think.

Maintenance, maintenance, maintenance!

Municipalities have many things to oversee, and downtown features may fall to the wayside when there are sewer, electricity, and other functions to maintain. Ensure that there are plans and procedures in place for maintaining your street trees, planters, and sidewalks. If your street plants are too much to handle, consider cutting back to what you can maintain. A few well-trimmed and healthy trees are better than many scraggly unkempt ones. Consider involving your business owners. Are there cigarette butts and litter in front of stores? That’s not good for the downtown nor the business owner’s image.

Work with owners to keep their street frontage clean, with reminders as the seasons change to ensure that they are ready for whatever weather is to come.

Seating and shelter

Streetscapes are not only for transporting people, but also a public space for them to gather. A downtown may have a beautiful row of building facades, but without benches or shelters for visitors to stop at, few will have the chance to admire them. Installing benches and shelters can become a collaboration with local artists as well! Contact local artists and artisans and you may be able to create both functional and beautiful seating and shelters that highlight local talent.

Pedestrians or cars?

While cars bring people to your downtown, people are the ones who shop, walk, and dine in your businesses. Is your downtown friendly to the people walking there? Are there crosswalks or do pedestrians have to jaywalk? If not, consider painting crosswalks in collaboration with local artists as well, combining both safety and art.

Do the cars constantly speed through your downtown? Instead of paying for concrete bumpouts and engaging in an arduous process to expand your sidewalk, utilize planters for a temporary and cheap solution to narrow your streets. You can use paint as well to indicate a bike lane to make the lanes smaller. After seeing the results, then consider investing in altering your streetscape further. Walkability is a key component of the attractiveness of downtown. Make sure that your downtown supports it!

Streetscapes are not permanent

Despite the term “concrete”, the asphalt of the streetscape is not as immutable as you may think. Simple changes with paint, planters, and good planning can help improve and test out new configurations for your streetscape. The physical environment through which visitors walk have a strong, lasting impact. Make sure your streetscape is saying what you want it to say about your downtown.