Reflections and observations of main streets from Stephen Sully, Secretary of Mainstreet Australia:
I’ve read many articles and attended countless presentations espousing the various critical factors for a successful main street over the years. Titles like “top tips” or “10 ingredients for a “successful centre” come to mind. I admit to have written a few such articles myself.
Reflecting however on my 40-year involvement with the planning, design, development or management of main streets, I have come to the conclusion that there is one component that trumps all the others. This factor is the presence of vibrant, attractive and desirable businesses.
Without businesses a main street ceases to exist, irrespective of the quality of its streetscape, the design of its public realm, the colour of the paving, the amount of parking or the creativity of its brand. People might be initially attracted to the look of a centre and excited by the parking opportunities or the species of tree, but they are unlikely to stay long, or indeed return if they can’t access the goods services or facilities that they desire. Money spent on planning strategies, urban design treatments, branding or events will never be truly effective unless it is accompanied by initiatives that will directly support and encourage appropriate businesses and activities to thrive.
A centre without a desirable range of businesses cannot fulfil the economic, social or physical objectives that we associate with main streets and the elements that make main streets such a vital part of our urban communities.
This observation is not meant to diminish or deny the importance of the planning, design and basic infrastructure of a centre and the benefit of shade, open space, community and cultural facilities, safety and accessibility. These aspects all add to the quality and attractiveness of a centre. My point is that these aspects will only be effective if they are accompanied by the right range of businesses, offering desired goods and services in the right place, open at the right time and at the right price.
In my opinion Local and State government spend too much time and money on the planning, design and development of our centres and not enough time or money supporting, facilitating and encouraging the businesses within the centres to thrive. Having worked in both local and state government I can appreciate why this happens. The planning, urban design, engineering, infrastructure, streetscapes community and cultural aspects of a centre are the components that we are familiar with, know how to do and feel comfortable in pursuing. From a political perspective these aspects have a physical component that can be pointed at as an achievement, built, opened, launched or photographed. Supporting, facilitating and encouraging the business community is not so familiar and from political perspective, businesses are seen always seen as not as deserving or requiring assistance. To my mind a business operating in a main street is, to some degree at least,
providing a service for the local community. They provide local access to essential goods and services and employment and as such deserve support.
We often refer planning and design strategies to independent planners, architects, designers or engineers for peer review. Perhaps its time to also consider seeking a business review.
The Covid pandemic has brought the importance of our main streets and their businesses into clear focus. Now is the time to capitalise on the opportunities that the pandemic as identified and spend more time and effort in working with and supporting the businesses within our main streets survive, revive and thrive. Here are a few ideas on how this could occur:
- Work in a real partnership with the businesses and their associations when developing plans and projects and determining budgets to be allocated to the main street. Establish and implement a management program for the main street along side any planning or design initiative, designed to manage the centre towards its desired future.
- Provide financial support to the business associations to help them manage the main street in a coordinated fashion.
- Engage people that understand small business and have experience working in small business as part of any project or initiative.
- Review proposed planning and design strategies from a business perspective and ensure that they will make it easier for the existing businesses to thrive and right businesses to be attracted and accommodated.
Stephen Sully is an urban planner and a passionate supporter of main streets. He is currently secretary of Mainstreet Australia and provides strategic advice to Councils and business associations through his business Planning by Design.