Director's Column

Main Street Green: Bringing Lofty Ideas Down to Earth

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If there is a theme that runs throughout this special “Green” issue of Main Street NOW, it is one of practicality. While talk of sustainable building technologies and infrastructure can leave many of us lost in the clouds of mystifying systems and jargon, the real-life case studies of Main Street sustainability success outlined in these pages will give you — the reader — tangible actions you can pursue today. And, if you are like me, you will literally be blown away by the amazing stories and progress happening in historic downtowns around the country.

Our Main Streets make a unique claim within the growing “sustainable communities” movement. Through our ongoing revitalization of historic downtown buildings and districts, we help make the point that where we build can have as much impact as how we build. Simply put, while building technologies such as geo-thermal systems and green roofs can lower energy use, (a key focus for LEED certifications, for example), the “location efficiency” of traditional Main Streets can lower our carbon footprint just as much — perhaps more — through the cost savings realized from dense, walkable developments with high access to transportation, services, and community “amenities.”

But location efficiency is simply not enough. After 30 years of fighting sprawl and reinvesting almost $50 billion in America’s established communities and existing infrastructure, the time has come for the National Main Street Network to delve deeper into creating sustainable communities.

To help achieve this goal, the National Trust Main Street Center hosted the Main Street Green Summit in February of this year, building on a landmark survey of more than 20 percent of our Main Street Network communities who are demonstrating early efforts and innovations in sustainability. Hosted at our headquarters in Washington, D.C., the summit convened 30 national leaders in the sustainability field. They included representatives from the federal Partnership for Sustainable Communities (USDA, EPA, and HUD), the US Green Building Council, Smart Growth America, NeighborWorks America, the Business Alliance of Local Living Economies, the National Complete Streets Coalition, LISC, and the Virginia Tech Metropolitan Research Institute, as well as state and local revitalization and preservation professionals.

Challenged by National Trust President Stephanie Meeks to dramatically expand our reach across the United States, this group explored ways to strengthen the National Trust’s sustainability agenda through our established Main Street program and network. Summit participants focused on the changes in national policy, messaging, benchmarks, assistance, and action that are needed to position Main Street as a key player in community sustainability.
Findings from the Main Street GREEN survey showed participants the enormous challenge that lies ahead. For example, the survey revealed that most local programs (81 percent) do not promote their communities as sustainable and just 28 percent offer assistance to make businesses more sustainable. Barriers cited by survey respondents included insufficient funding and organizational capacity, other high-priority issues, and a need for compelling data that makes a financial argument for convincing business and building owners to go green.

The Main Street GREEN project made three things abundantly clear:

  1. Sustainability on Main Street is more than just buildings. We must combine elements that include increasing the cost efficiency of business practices and building systems, strengthening local economies, establishing progressive development policies, and building “complete streets,” to name just a few.
  2. Green practices need to prove their “return on investment.” Especially in this economy, city officials, building owners, and entrepreneurs need clear evidence that being green can improve their bottom line today.
  3. Local sustainability innovations bring lofty ideas down to earth. While few Main Street communities can boast a comprehensive sustainability program yet, the survey revealed the tremendous creativity and unique grassroots success stories of local programs, leaders, and entrepreneurs who are leading by example. These pioneers in the field are converting ivory tower concepts into practical, economical solutions everyone can understand and use.

This issue of Main Street NOW is brimming with great, practical, and inspiring case studies that make all three of these points. Passionate entrepreneurs behind the Monument Cafe in Georgetown, Texas, for example, have launched a small business empire based on an ambitious commitment to the highest standards in green business practices, and they have been richly rewarded on their bottom line as a result.

The entire city of Franklin Tennessee, on the other hand, has launched a local green revolution, through one of the most comprehensive community-wide sustainability programs we’ve seen. This is just the tip of the iceberg. Throughout this issue, you will find a growing universe of successful strategies to make our Main Streets more prosperous by making our historic buildings and local businesses models for living local and going green.