Spaces to Places

Transforming Public Spaces into Vibrant Places for the Community.

Every Community Needs a Main Street

Does your community have a “Main Street”?  If so, what sets it apart from other streets?

Jim Thorpe, PA
Jim Thorpe, PA

Why should a community have a “Main Street”?   As argued in the Main Street Handbook, Main Streets help define a community so that a neighborhood or city can develop a unique identity within a larger regional context. Main streets are also fertile grounds for small businesses to grow. And, as an added benefit, they are efficient in reducing the amount of automobile traffic in the area.

Until recently, every city or town had a Main Street, or center of town, where residents and visitors could find a wide range of goods and services.  They were located on a main thoroughfare and were the main area for conducting nearly any kind of business. They were the center of commercial, social, and civic activities.

Photograph courtesy Longmont Museum.
Photograph courtesy Longmont Museum.

Main Streets thrived up until the 1960s and ‘70s, when larger-scale, auto-oriented shopping centers became popular.  The cookie cutter architecture of these new developments provided neither a sense of place nor pride for a community.  Businesses began moving from downtowns to the shopping centers, which were built around new connecting highways and interstates.  Downtowns became vacant, boarded up and neglected.


 Today, many communities are now revitalizing their Main Streets to return to a more traditional, walkable environment or they are creating new hybrids of traditional and contemporary town centers.  Communities are turning to the traditional Main Street concept as an alternative to malls and strip shopping centers as residents are seeking the sense of community that was once offered by original "Main Street."


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Reviving a Main Street requires residents, businesses, and governments to work together, one step at a time. While Main Streets vary from community to community, there are some universal characteristics. Creating Quality Main Streets, a Fact Sheet by the Institute of Transportation Engineers, points out some of the key ingredients for a successful Main Street:

  • The architecture of the buildings, unified urban design features, the appearance of the street frontage, and the provision of public spaces
  • The types and mix of uses, particularly those that generate pedestrian activity and create an active day and evening place
  • The design of the street to accommodate all users such as vehicular traffic, pedestrians, bicyclists, transit, mobility challenged individuals, and goods delivery


Outdoor cafes & street festivals add vitality to downtown West Chester, PA.

Sometimes all it takes is a café opening to start the revitalization.  In 2006, a pioneering couple opened the Cafe on Broadway in downtown Siloam Springs, Ark.  They also built apartments upstairs. Then a ­developer turned a nearby 19th-century building into five residential loft units. “Once there were locals living downtown, it added an around-the-clock vibrancy,” says Meredith Bergstrom, executive director of Main Street Siloam Springs. Soon businesses appealing to the new residents opened: a pizzeria, a hair salon, a clothing boutique, a flower shop. More living spaces followed.

The Café on Broadway
The Café on Broadway

But most revitalizations need investment and community support to succeed. Dahlonega, Georgia won the 2016 award for Great American Main Street City from the National Trust for Historic Preservation after it invested in 16 public and private construction projects totaling more than $1 million in downtown. Now,  Dahlonega is one of Georgia's foremost historic downtown centers where you can grab a bite to eat, gallery hop, shop, or catch a show at the beautifully restored Holly Theater. Southern Appalachian culture flourishes with events held throughout the year like the Gold Rush Days festival and the Southeast's largest bicycle event, Six Gap/Three Gap.


After recovering from a massive flood, Ellicott City in Maryland, rebounded and rebuilt their Main Street. Running parallel to the Tiber River and cutting straight through the historic district, the rebuilt Main Street includes a yoga studio, a local vintage-inspired lifestyle store named for the owner's grandmother and a Victorian tea room serving up a traditional high tea experience.


Using an NAR Smart Growth Grant, the Medina County Board of REALTORS® helped to bring back Seville’s Main Street.  The village in Ohio had been hard hit by the recent recession that left its once-charming main street commercial district 33 percent unoccupied. The grant brought representatives from the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Main Street Center (NTMSC) to town to conduct a study and make recommendations for reviving the downtown. The recommendations focused on filling commercial vacancies by building on the success of the existing cluster of antique and craft stores and selling the vacant school.  Seville bounced back in a big way and now not only has a thriving Main Street but is a regional destination for antique- and crafts-lovers.


The Main Street trend is even spreading in suburbia.  Private and public-sector leaders are working together to recreate new town centers in the middle of suburbia.   These town centers differ from traditional shopping centers as they emphasize a mix of commercial and public spaces. Many resemble the historic character of traditional Main Streets with a combination of big and small buildings, each with varying levels of attractiveness. The buildings create a distinctive skyline and compliment and connect to surrounding land uses.  They even have a pedestrian orientation where people can feel connected through the creation of a home-town atmosphere.

Liberty Center in Ohio is a newly built multi-use town center that brings together the community’s recreational, social and civic passions by anchoring its citizen’s state-of-mind to an attainable state-of-being.  An enriching and vibrant quality of life is made possible 24/7 through residential living and integrated office and small business space. Amenities create an environment where parks, recreation and diverse cultural outlets ground the community. Together with a thriving daytime population and socially engaged, supportive community, Liberty Center is the perfect place for people to live, work and enjoy the benefits of a vibrant and centered local life.


And Pennsylvania Avenue, a street unlike any other in Washington, D.C. is known to many as America’s Main Street where it is known as the heart of the Nation's Capital.  America's history has marched, paraded, promenaded, and protested its way along the Avenue. This unique site preserves locations related to the creation of the Federal City, Presidential Inaugurations, and historically significant events.


So, what is the state of your community’s Main Street?


Community Outreach Programs

Housing Opportunity Grant
Housing Opportunity Grants support state and local REALTOR® Associations’ affordable housing activities. The goal of the program is to position REALTORS® as leaders in improving their communities by creating affordable housing

Smart Growth Grant
Smart growth is an approach to development that encourages a mix of building types and uses, diverse housing and transportation options, development within existing neighborhoods, and community engagement. The Smart Growth Program offers state and local REALTOR® Associations to way to engage with government officials, community partners and the general public in planning and designing community’s future.

Planned diversity initiatives makes good business sense. REALTOR® Associations with well-planned diversity programs create a stronger sense of community, particularly in neighborhoods with high concentrations of foreign-born and minority residents who are moving up the socioeconomic ladder and are buying homes.

NAR Placemaking Resources

Placemaking Guide: A Guide to Transform a Public Space into a Community Place
REALTORS® and state and local association staff can learn the details of Placemaking, the kinds of projects placemaking entails, how to organize them, and where to go for assistance and resources.

Placemaking Webinar Series
Our Placemaking Webinar Series will provide more in depth information on the various types of Placemaking and how REALTORS® were involved in Placemaking activities in their communities.

Placemaking Grant
The Placemaking Grant funds the creation of new public spaces, like pocket parks, trails & gardens, in a community. The grant focuses on “lighter, cheaper, quicker” placemaking projects, which can be built under a year and cost less  than $200,000.

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Smart Growth

The healthier a community, the better the environment for REALTORS®. Keeping a community attractive, livable and functioning well is a complex task.