Main Street Green Summit

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As Doug Loescher discussed in his Director’s Column, the time has come for Main Street programs to delve deeper into creating sustainable communities. To help the National Trust Main Street Center strategically approach this need, we first surveyed local and statewide Main Street programs in November 2010 to assess their sustainability challenges and needs and then hosted a facilitated dialog with national partners in February 2011 to explore ways to make sustainability a readily achievable priority for communities.

The Main Street Center tapped a wide variety of expertise from food systems to local livable economies thanks to participation from representatives of EPA, USDA, HUD, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), state and local revitalization/preservation programs, the US Green Building Council (USGBC), the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), NeighborWorks, the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE), the Eastern Market Corporation, and CLUE Group. These thought leaders enthusiastically rose to the challenge and spent a day and a half in dynamic discussions that ended with a desire to work together in a meaningful way.

On the first day of the summit, the Main Street Center shared some important findings from the survey. We learned that most local programs (81 percent) do not promote their communities as sustainable; barriers they cited include insufficient funding and organizational capacity, other high-priority issues, and a need for more information and resources. Only 28 percent offer assistance to create more sustainable businesses; 6 percent have a sustainability plan for their downtown; and 11 percent have integrated sustainability elements into their master plans. Survey respondents cited a feeling of guilt that they haven’t made sustainability a bigger priority while also expressing frustration that they have no proof of a tangible return on investment (ROI) that can be used to persuade building and business owners to go green.

We also painted a picture about what green Main Streets look like today through a series of case studies. The Center is seeing more standalone, single projects, such as rain gardens or reusable bag giveaways, than the type of holistic sustainable community development that Franklin, Tennessee, is working toward.

Federal representatives acknowledged the power of Main Street communities to meet livability principles. They believe that the compact urban footprint of downtown (“locational efficiency”) is a game changer and that there is value in embedding that characteristic into grant and loan systems.

Other speakers, too, shared their perspectives on opportunities for Main Street. We have archived these seven-minute presentations on our website and linked them to the online version of this article.

Christine Green of the National Complete Streets Coalition challenged us to think about all users of the road; she pointed out that Complete Streets policies offer flexible, not cookie-cutter, strategies that can improve the livability of communities of all sizes.

Michael Shuman of BALLE emphasized the need for a business-oriented approach to create sustainable communities, explaining that it is critical to invest in small business development, like the microenterprise programs often found on Main Street that get results from investing $2,000 per job.

Dan Carmody of Detroit’s Eastern Market Corporation, stunned the audience with the fact that if Americans ate the fresh foods recommended in the USDA food pyramid we’d be 13 million acres short of meeting production. He pointed out that about five companies separate 300 million consumers from the 450,000 farmers producing our food, with Walmart today capturing 25 percent of food sales. Carmody championed the need for sustainable food hubs that match food producers with consumers — hubs that are metropolitan systems and bring wellness into the equation.

Sara Dinges discussed the quest of Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood to delve deeper into sustainability and green businesses by creating ecoAndersonville, an initiative that includes an innovative green small business certification program. The program helps small businesses meet the triple bottom line and assists them to meet their goals — an element missing from larger national programs.

Lastly, Mike Jackson of the Illinois State Historic Preservation Office explained that the idea of reusing buildings is inherently green but that old buildings need to be greener. We can do that with retrofits, he said, stressing that we can’t build our way to sustainability, we need to conserve our way there.

Most of the summit revolved around interactive dialog and small working groups. Participants’ ideas of green Main Streets began with reenergizing the town center; creating livable places for mixed ages, incomes, and ethnicities; and supporting small businesses. A few trends came up, which included the need for more regional thinking, improving transportation efficiency, applying planning and zoning to green community development, collaborating with federal offices, establishing better connections among mayors, and rallying behind a shared interest in policy change.

The reality of climate change and limits on our natural resources challenge us to ask more from our built environment — upgrading buildings with energy-efficient systems, weatherizing structures, enhancing walkability, reducing water run-off, and more. Main Street programs are uniquely poised as liaisons between the public and private sectors and as champions for the downtown to infuse sustainability into their revitalization work, but they need access to funding, proof that green upgrades are worth the effort, model ordinances and incentives, and more case studies of green Main Street projects. In the coming year, we will be working with our partners to help bring resources to local programs.

The summit’s challenge as a group is to take a high-level approach with a local-level impact to collaborations with the understanding that the path to becoming a sustainable community isn’t by taking a “one-size-fits-all” approach. As we develop our goals and projects in the coming year, we must communicate that while single sustainability projects weave the whole, we must emphasize the power of a holistic approach to sustainable community development. While some of our work would be geared toward Main Street communities, by embedding a green filter into our revitalization methodology or criteria for accreditation, much of what we develop can be used beyond the Main Street network, and the implications for demonstrating how partnerships can affect thousands of communities is almost limitless.