The Importance of Being Strategically Championed
A century ago, a neighborhood with a dedicated post office or pharmacy store was considered an exemplary, thriving, and resilient community. If only creating Vibrant Streets were still this easy: insert any business and – ta da! Your community is bustling. In reality, creating a lively street environment takes a bit more work than that. Fortunately, that work – which often plays out as streetscape improvements – results in retail districts that are cohesively planned, and attracts investment that mirrors its identity.
Streetscape improvements are one way to show that a community is being championed, or backed by and invested in by an entity, whether private or public. It shows that there is life on this street and a reason for the investment – people are using it. And, just as importantly, it incentivizes retailers to invest in the street as well. However, not just any kind of investment is adequate.
A great streetscape shows signs of coordinated and organized investment that accomplishes the goals of a community by facilitating a specific brand and message. It is not just about the stores a street contains, but also about how the stores contribute to the overall vibe and aesthetic. Being artistic is not enough, though; designing with content, regulations, and a mindfulness to the functionality of a particular street is critical. Communities can begin to accomplish this kind of championed investment is by building essential regulations into goals and plans from the start. The physical look, feel, and environment of streetscape design should reflect, in a cohesive way, what the street represents and its overarching goals. Regulations help define this. In DC, for example, sidewalk width regulations have been precisely calculated to foster communities with vehicular and pedestrian accessibility and viable retail. Use these and similar regulations to your advantage to create thriving retail streets that boast a unified streetscape design.
From the Experts
How you create these thriving districts was at the forefront of our second quarterly Vibrant Streets Forum: “Community Character Development: Innovative Practices in Streetscape Design.” On April 28, experts Chris Shaheen, Public Space Program Manager with the DC Office of Planning, and Colin Greene, Vice President of Planning with HOK, explained what it takes to transform communities – and take advantage of investment that’s already happening in a district.
Specifically, Mr. Shaheen highlighted the regulatory and implementation aspects of innovation, touching on how DC government vets streetscape design proposals. Regulations are, in fact, not always the enemy! Creating change from within the rules set in place by city planning institutions and other regulatory agencies (e.g. departments of transportation, permitting and zoning commissions, etc.) actually allow for an efficient and well-designed neighborhood. Setting some boundaries allows a community to focus on what can be uniquely created and sets expectations that are achievable, rather than daunting. There is no need to reinvent the wheel; if sidewalk widths are set at a specific number, it is likely for a very good reason. Conversely, sometimes city codes and practices are not up to speed with present day sidewalk design. If this is the case, assist the responsible party in updating the code. Oftentimes simply updating existing regulations is hugely innovative and transformative for a community.
Additionally, Mr. Greene analyzed the specific elements of innovative streetscapes and emphasized the need to design cohesively. What is the vision for the final product, in terms of ambience, physical environment, and culture? Think about the areas of greatest need in a population: what do they need most in order to call their current neighborhood a fun, safe, and happy place to live or work? Plan for this lowest common denominator, and pay special attention to details that cannot be changed later, like infrastructure such as existing anchors.
Championed in Context
Championed is step number five in the Vibrant Streets Toolkit for a reason. Many neighborhoods are eager to skip to the beautification process of adding trees, benches, and street art. However, if the first four steps (managed, retail-appropriate, mixed, and safe) are not fully accomplished, then any streetscape improvement program alone will not revitalize a commercial district. When the first four fundamental steps are completed, though, the exciting and creative steps begin with “championed” – which could mean a streetscape improvement process.
If all of this sounds overwhelming, remember that small steps can add up to something big. Think about the distinct uses that are already present within your community to develop a design muse and model. Does your district house multiple museums? Do children flock to your neighborhood for its great parks and playgrounds? Highlight existing anchors – civic and cultural strengths – in a strategic way to create a cohesive plan for your community and to set your street apart. Though anchored, step number six in the Vibrant Streets Toolkit, comes after championed, thinking about and incorporating the strengths of your community early on will help organically create a unified brand, ultimately resulting in a championed and successful retail district.
Thanks to all who attended our second forum, and to our event sponsors, Sonny & Sons / Adirondack Natural Stone and Forms+Surfaces. To learn more about the forum, view a recording of the event, or register for the next forum, visit www.vibrantstreets.com.