Downtowns Are an Independent and Living Organism

Downtowns are an Independent and Living Organism
Downtowns are often seen as a “destination” or location where people visit for various reasons. Due to this “destination” status, a downtown or commercial corridor is often perceived as only being a creation of the Built Environment, focused solely on the retail or service industries. While this may be the prevalent perception or cursory review, it could not be further from the truth. Downtowns mimic a living, breathing organism, made up of different distinct and interactive “systems” dependent on one another for success. It is this level of complexity that makes a downtown function as a comprehensive location, full of life and intrigue like qualities, while offering necessary services and amenities for residents throughout their multiple phases of life. In the remainder of this article, we will look at the various “systems” that make a downtown an independent organism, and why they are dependent upon one another for success.

Critical systems in any Downtown:

“Circulatory System” – How residents move throughout a downtown core is a critical system, conveying individuals to their destinations and providing necessary services. Without this system functioning at 100% capacity, portions of the downtown or corridors become blighted or neglected. Also, important to remember, is the need for a multi-tiered circulation system. The order of priority for transportation types should be determined by the need of each community, however each community should ensure that pedestrian, bicycle and vehicular systems are available.
“Nervous System” – When thinking about a downtown, the nervous system is most compared to the individuals or retail end users. These individuals are often the message conveyors and information distribution system that supports a downtown corridor. Without this system or network of individuals, the downtown corridor will have a delayed response and detection of issues. Over time communication methods change and outside stimulants (such as social media) can be added, but the “means and methods” of this system remain fundamentally rooted in users sharing their experience, positive or negative.
“Skeletal System” – The built environment represents the skeletal system for a downtown corridor. This is the structure that upholds the many services and amenities, as well as provides a frame for visual interest. In this system, a downtown is built and occupies, and without proper maintenance of the built environment, the downtown will be missing a few “bones” in their skeleton. Without proper maintenance of this system, cancerous or sickened elements can begin to effect the overall skeletal system of the downtown. However, much like a rehabilitation surgery, by providing the right structural repairs or improvements, the original skeletal structure can often be just as strong, if not stronger, than before.
“Muscular System” – When thinking about a system that can “move” a downtown or can be utilized to “shape” the downtown, one primarily thinks of the services and amenities. Without these vital elements, the downtown would just be an empty downtown or “skeleton”. These services or amenities can help shape the where, when and how, of a downtown; ultimately determining if the corridor can expand or contract to remain prosperous. Also similar to muscles, many services and amenities must work together to help the downtown corridors meet their highest and best use. In order to help these MUSCULAR businesses or amenities they work together, often needing to “work out” and practice how to achieve their best use. When thinking about this in terms of the service or retail industries, it would entail performing cross promoted events or partnering together to create a draw that will increase awareness and attendance within the downtown. On the converse side of this, businesses must be resilient like a muscular system, understanding there is a time to bulk up (or increase staff and services) and times to pair back in an effort to over weather an economic downtown. These muscular businesses and amenities will also need to adapt and alter as necessary to meet changing trends or needs for the community.
While each community may be their own “Genus, species or subcategory”, they all have the above listed systems, and even more specialized systems that are created by their community. While the exact components of each community’s “system” changes, the common element is that all available systems must work at their design task and at capacity. At this level of proficiency, the systems will depend on one another and integrate themselves to create an organism that functions efficiently and effectively.
Becoming the “Doctor” for your downtown
The above listed systems may appear to be common knowledge, yet how they interact and depend on one another is far from common knowledge. When a main street manager or downtown director can understand and dictate their downtown’s “systems” they can truly work towards shaping and adapting the downtown to meet the local resident’s needs. Understanding this need, outlined below are recommendations or strategies that can be utilized to help improve the knowledge of your community:
  • Mapping out the systems – In order to understand what systems are in place and how they are interacting, it is important that they are mapped. In this exercise, the main street program or downtown association will conduct an analysis of the downtown, identify their systems, outline any pinch points or redundant systems and look for ways to help navigate troubled systems back into efficiency. Some sample mapping exercises include:
    • Downtown audits
    • Corridor planning studies
    • Strategic fact finding
    • Action plans
  • Documenting “weak systems” – Weak systems can hinder the remainder of the downtown and it is imperative that they are repaired immediately. Working to help each system achieve maximum efficiency, the main street or downtown organization should prepare targeted action steps and key performance indicators to help provide corrective action. It is through these steps that the community can begin to understand the progression of the weakened system, but also create a tracking system for accountability purposes.
  • Planning for longevity – In the planning process it is important to understand when critical systems within the downtown will achieve maximum or usable life goals. Through this process the community can begin to strategically plan for replacement or renovation as necessary to keep service without interruptions. This specific task is most important for municipalities who are budgeting or planning for capital expenditures.
    • Think of grants functions as an insurance policy, offering a cost reduction in procedure expenses
    • Longevity and maximum entropy are like estate planning
  • Removal of “cancerous” systems – As important as creating efficient and effective systems is removing cancerous or negatively impactful systems. In many communities there are often underlying issues that are impacting surface visions for the downtown. It is important that steps should be taken to dig deeper and identify the true meaning for the negative aspects. This style of identification may take some digging, frank conversations or even unpleasant confrontations; yet it is vitally important. Once the root cause of these issues is known, it should become a priority for the main street or downtown organization to remove these systems or issues as expeditiously as possible. By removing these systems, the community can begin to heal and move forward with a new and improved downtown.
  • Redundancy planning – critical systems often go down or operate at a reduced capacity, and in order to ensure the downtown functions at 100%, there must be built in redundancies. These redundancies can function as a backup or secondary system, supporting primary systems in heavy use times. Often redundant systems are a mixture of segments from primary systems, working in conjunction to fulfill the necessary service or amenity. When thinking about redundancy, the most commonly duplicated system is pedestrian circulation. When a streetscape project is blocking the retail frontage windows, a series of ancillary walkways and directions signage is required to entice shoppers to utilize rear or secondary entrances for buildings. When thinking about becoming the doctor for a downtown, there must be a series of redundancy plans in place to help the community retain at 100% utilization. Planning for redundance commonly focuses around scenario planning and solution development. In order to help a downtown the director or municipality must have a series of the most likely scenario planning. This should include road closures, fire/emergency planning, year-round access challenges, civic or festival gatherings.
A community can utilize the tools above to begin planning for the future of their downtown corridors and the appropriate uses. Essentially, we as downtown managers or planners need to have regular evaluations of the “Systems” that make up our downtowns.  Preparing plans and strategies to continually improve the corridors, increase sustainability and improve longevity. The plans must be reviewed and amended as necessary to meet the ever changing conditions and market-based realities.


Each and every downtown is a unique and delicate organism and mastering the systems should be the drive for any professional or main street director. Through the above exercises and recommendations, each community will be able to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of their downtown, increasing resiliency, and ensuring that each commercial corridor remains relevant for years to come. While the above recommendations and strategies will provide immediate relief, they will help prepare a strong action plan, that can serve the main street or downtown organizations for years to come.

About the author

Ben Levenger is an AICP planner and registered landscape architect. He is the president of
Downtown Redevelopment Services, LLC, a boutique planning firm specializing in assisting
communities through strategic downtown planning, adaptive re-use and economic development services throughout the continental United States.