Rebuilding Main Street After COVID-19: Recommendations for and reflections from small and mid-sized American cities

So now what?

Assuming we are past the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, now what happens to our downtowns? Before the pandemic, many downtowns were having a moment. People were discovering the joy of parking once and walking around a traditional New England town center. You can stop in a few different shops, maybe pick something up for dinner at a local fish market or bakery, and enjoy the downtown buildings and people.

Once COVID hit, people were reluctant to leave their houses, let alone go downtown and be around groups of people. Some experts, citing research that suggests people like working remotely and don’t want to return to work in an office, suggest that downtowns may be dead.

This is not the first time that prediction has been made. For a while in the late 20th century, it appeared to be coming true. However, the draw of people and places is strong, and while post-pandemic work may challenge the downtowns in larger cities, I don’t expect it will mean the death of the small downtown. In fact, it may be the beginning of a new paradigm of understanding how Main Street can grow and thrive.

I wanted to understand the future of the small city or town center, so I started a research project last summer called “Rebuilding Main Street After COVID-19.” Working with funding from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Department of Urban Studies & Planning, my research colleague Emma Gonzalez Roberts and I set out to see what these small downtowns would need in the future to grow and thrive.

We worked with six communities in New England and the Upper Midwest, including Nashua, NH; Haverhill, MA; and Portland ME. First we spoke to local economic development officials in government or non-profit roles. With their help, we then distributed a survey to local businesses in their community.

Businesses were asked about their short-term priorities, but the focus of the study was on their long-term needs. While there was a wide range of views from local businesses and officials, a few long-term priorities emerged:

  • Businesses need money. They need funding to help pay their bills, rent, and staff. This funding will be hard to come by, but at a minimum local governments can help play a role in trying to head off the relocation of successful existing businesses by property owners hoping to attract a national business you might see in any community in the country.
  • Businesses also need plans for downtown. They generally liked the innovation of parklets and repurposed streets during the pandemic, and welcomed a long-range plan that might make some of these changes more constant and permanent. Rather than closing different streets from year to year, communities should develop a strategy that works for circulation, deliveries, parking, and local businesses, and implement it. Local stores can then make investments without worrying that a future municipal official might decide to change course.
  • Finally, businesses need flexibility. Many downtown zoning codes have tens, if not hundreds, of different commercial uses. Changing from one to another, or adding a new use to your space, may require providing more parking (unlikely downtown) and a public process that may take time and cost money. Look at your codes and make it easy to switch between common uses in a downtown, without requiring extra parking.

These strategies can help your downtown grow and thrive in the 2020’s and beyond. The final report is available here.

Written by:

Jeff Levine

Faculty Lecturer, MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning; Owner, Levine Planning Strategies, LLC

Jeff Levine, AICP, is an urban planner who has worked in New England for 25 years. Currently, he is the Owner and Principal of Levine Planning Strategies, a small consulting firm that specializes in bridging the gap between the development community and city planners. He is also a faculty member of the Department of Urban Studies & Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.