Ideas for Creating Resilient Downtowns, Villages, and Main Streets
by Laura Pirie

As we all get used to the “new normal”, at least for the near term, it’s been fascinating to witness new connections, or re-connections, in our neighborhoods. We are hunkering-in, teaching our kids at home, working at home, and trying to stay connected while staying safe.

With this change, I have noticed a new ritual in my neighborhood, Westville, in New Haven. Around 4 in the afternoon almost every day, the streets begin to fill with people, at safe distance of course. Empty nesters stroll, young parents push strollers or have a run with kids alongside on bikes or scooters, and teens digitally connect with friends while walking. I have chatted more with my neighbors across the street in the last month than I can recall over the past several years. Perhaps one silver lining of the terrible COVID -19 pandemic is that it may reconnect us to our communities and to our neighborhoods, and ground us in the places where we live, play, and now, even work.

The pandemic may actually fortify a trend that has been slowly occurring over recent decades: the decline in relocation rates across the U.S. As reported by Sabrina Tavernise in the New York Times “Frozen in Place: Americans Are Moving at the Lowest Rate on Record”, the reasons for the relocation decline are unclear. Many economists and demographers who have been studying this trend have yet to identify the primary driver. Whether from lack of opportunity, limiting economic conditions, or the desire to be more rooted in an increasingly disconnected world, more people are choosing to stay where they are. Tavernise’s article quoted one West Virginia resident who said that he is staying put and running for county commission in an effort to make things better where he lives now.

Whether urban, suburban, or rural, in response to the pandemic, decades-old trends, or just the desire to make things better where we live now, how can we help our existing communities grow and thrive?

In-the-Trench Insight

To get some in-the-trenches insight, I reached out to Lizzy Donius, Executive Director of the Westville Village Renaissance Alliance, a Connecticut Main Street Center member. WVRA is a non-profit organization that partners with local businesses, property owners, residents, and public and private institutions to foster economic development, community engagement, and placemaking for Westville Village and its surrounding neighborhoods.

I asked Lizzy a few questions about what’s working, what’s needed, and how we can learn from this moment to help our neighborhoods be more resilient, and connected, moving forward.

LP: Lizzy, how have you been spending your time since the shelter-in-place order has shuttered many Westville Village businesses?

LD:  I have been working as hard as ever, and my efforts have really been focused in 3 ways:

First, WVRA has a robust newsletter that we immediately pivoted to share that status of our Village businesses. Most of these small businesses, including sole proprietors and artists, only have minimal, if any, capacity to operate online. So, the next thing WVRA did was to connect them to an online gift card service to create and sell gift cards.  This enabled many businesses to generate a bit of revenue right away.  WVRA then used our newsletter to alert the Westville community to purchase the gift cards.

Third, I am working on ways to reconnect the community.  We realized pretty quickly that our huge annual May event, Art Walk, would not happen this year. I thought we would just cancel it.  However, when I met with merchants and neighbors, everyone was craving something – some way to “gather”.  So, we are now working on a virtual Art Walk – the details are being developed as we speak.

LP: It seems that your focus has been on providing awareness, new tools, and new ways to connect people. The connection effort is interesting, since it does not have to do directly with generating income – which seems to be everyone’s obvious focus. What is the driver there?

LD: With the absence of activities that we are all used to in Westville, the values underpinning WVRA came to the fore – how WVRA informs everyone’s lives – and the quality of life and the connection that comes with it.

LP: That intangible but super important sense of place that comes from living in a community – where each person’s contribution in creating and sustaining that community matters, whatever its size?

LD: Exactly. What motivates me is the question: what would Westville Village be if the businesses that defined it were gone?  What would happen to our community then? That’s how I prioritize my efforts now – how to keep these businesses functioning so they will be there, and so the communities that gather through and around these businesses will have a place to connect.

LP: Another intangible: the quality of life that’s possible when we come together around a common interest, and common activities and celebrations.

LD: Exactly! When its safe, the first thing we’ll do is throw a big party – so we can all reconnect!  In the meantime, we walk around the neighborhood, wave, and check in as best we can. Even that is reassuring now.

LP: On the other side of this, what will WVRA do, or need assistance with, to help Westville Village businesses recover?

LD: First, we’ll need resident advocacy to push business to the Village. WVRA can do this in part with our newsletter, but residents will need to step in with their presence and their dollars. Second, we’ll need to develop IT skills to help move businesses to operate online as well as in person. This will help with long term business resiliency as well.

LP: What is one last thought you would like to share?

LD: The most important thing for people to remember is to spend money locally.  As we are all learning to do with less throughout this crisis, we can also learn to redirect our resources. Local spending directly supports local businesses, and the local businesses create a part of the identity and sense of place we all love. The two go hand in hand – and this is a connection that all of us crave, crisis or not.

 

About the Author

Laura Pirie is principal of Pirie Associates in New Haven, CT, a multidisciplinary design firm whose impact-driven work creates places that connect communities and empower people through engagement with the built environment. Laura is a board member of CMSC and is a Lecturer in Architecture at Yale University.