Most rural communities suffer from a lack of definition in the downtown core. Some may say that’s a good thing, but even small towns need centres too.
I’ve used the word Urbanism in the title of this post, describing the physical features of urban existence, planning, the orderliness, the transportation networks, the political forces, the presence of religious and social structures. I’m going to make up a term today, rural urbanism… ok, so the quick ones in the audience would have Googled it and found out that I didn’t make it up first, but it doesn’t seem to be used much in the way I’m intending anyway!
Downtown doesn’t have to be a maze of high rises and car parks, bustling with taxis and rushing people, we’ll leave that for the city folks! My vision of a rural centre downtown zone is one where people can walk, there are all season areas to congregate and enjoy a sense of place. People can do there shopping all within walking distance without having to drive to the next big box store. Some sceptics will laugh, “It’s not possible” they will cry! And part of me agrees that things have probably gone too far in the sprawl direction for mixed use zoning and consolidation of many rural centres to occur.
But another part of me, the part that likes to fight the system and not just sit idly by as good land use planning gets thrown out the window as we drive our “rural suburbs” onto the next town, doing as good a job as the big cities at gobbling up the villages that link towns and cities along the highway.
As it stands, most rural cities or towns have no incentives for businesses to beef up a downtown area, land is often cheaper on the fringes of town, and from the business’s perspective, its often not that far for clients to drive to visit. So if that’s the case, do we need “downtown areas” in small towns?
Small towns often struggle to fins a sense of character or uniqueness, but in just about every town I’ve travelled through in Europe, North America and Australia that has a downtown area, it has greater economic and cultural diversity than those that don’t. Tourists love downtown areas, coffee shops, bakeries, pubs, local artisan and craft shops. Pedestrian only malls or local traffic only streets with well patronised shops create a relaxed focal point for communities to meet and socialize.
How do we encourage companies to invest in the downtown?
- Zoning. This is a pretty hard hitting way to get new development occurring in “the right areas”. Simply don’t allow commercial development outside the downtown area.
- Incentives. Tax breaks, construction offsets, grants, whatever you want to call it, make companies want to build their business there.
- Get creative. Get the community together on the idea, sell it to the town, find the tipping point and make the idea stick in people’s heads.
This small change in planning direction could lead to big rewards for the community in ten or twenty years time. Communities need to look to the future and find ways to get investment happening, and one of those ways is intensifying the downtown experience through urbanism.