Downtowns have been called the heart of a community.  Downtowns are the traditional business districts where it all got started many years ago.  Most downtowns even have a “Main Street” recognizing the place as special and unique.  In addition to buildings, downtowns have their own history, stories and people.  Together these elements combine to form a unique place rich with character.  Downtowns have historic, cultural and architectural resources to local enterprises and community pride.  Focusing on downtowns can be beneficial for economic and community development as well as physical activity.

photo of downtown Columbia, Maury County

Why are downtowns important?

Downtowns are more densely developed and are generally one of the most long-term, resilient and economic assets of a community.  Successful downtowns can achieve a triple-bottom line of a more equitable community, stronger economy and protected environment.

Downtowns are traditional business districts with municipal buildings, offices, restaurants, shops, parks and even residences located close together.  Downtowns have a unique character all their own.  With their rich history and economic importance, downtowns are great places for communities to focus on the built environment to the benefit of the residents, businesses and overall economic prosperity.

What is the Tennessee Main Street program?

The Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development’s Tennessee Main Street program is a statewide resource for revitalizing and managing downtowns.  Merchants, business owners, property owners, residents and local government participate through a working group.  The work group plans for downtown area improvements while gathering broad-based local interest and support.

How can downtowns be more pedestrian friendly?

Walkable and bikeable places give people choices on how to get around while increasing physical activity.  Walkable downtowns help attract and retain both people and businesses.  Walkable destinations are great for visiting, shopping, dining and more.  To benefit people – residents, customers and tourists alike – downtowns can consider:

  • sidewalks and crosswalks,
  • bike lanes and bike racks,
  • transit routes and transit stops,
  • drinking fountains and shade,
  • signage and historical markers,
  • outdoor seating and café space,
  • landscaping and trees, plus
  • public art and beautification.

How can downtowns plan for redevelopment?

photo of redevelopment of downtown Camden, Benton County

Redevelopment is simply repurposing a property from one use to another.  Redevelopment often adds to property values.  Sometimes redevelopment is an obvious choice.  Other times, the economic marketplace, environmental contamination, or public perception may hinder redevelopment.  Local elected officials who want to re-invigorate and strengthen their downtown centers of economy, culture and history through a smart growth approach can consider Smart Growth America’s seven-step approach to downtown redevelopment:

  1. Understand your community,
  2. Create an attractive, walkable place,
  3. Diversify economic uses,
  4. Plan for equity,
  5. Improve government regulations and processes,
  6. Finance projects, and
  7. Establish on-going place management.

A community of any size can use their smart growth development approach.  Through public engagement, strategic planning, public commitment and ongoing support, places can be created that unite community, attract visitors and support businesses.

How can downtowns be more environmentally friendly?

photo of crosswalk in Dyersburg, Dyer County

Downtowns and main streets can benefit both people and the environment.  The familiar ideals of clean air to breathe and clean water to drink can be reinforced through planning.  To be more environmentally friendly downtowns can:

  • Use street trees to create shade and beautification,
  • Plant native and drought tolerant plants for wildlife and beautification,
  • Consider how pavement will concentrate stormwater,
  • Use rain gardens and grassy swales to collect rainwater,
  • Separate idling automobiles from people where possible, plus
  • Maintain recycling and trash receptacles to prevent litter.

How can downtowns attract more tourists?

Tourists like eclectic places to visit and enjoy.  All of the above ideas will also function to attract tourists.  Tourists want safe places where they can choose how they get around for sightseeing, shopping and dining.  Visit our Healthy Places Tourism webpage for more idea about attracting tourists to your area.

Why preserve downtowns and main streets?

photo of downtown Portland, Sumner County

Our downtowns and main streets are rich with history.  History give places a sense of identity.  Preserving downtowns and main streets remembers the past while preparing for the future.  Signage celebrating history reminds residents and tourists about the importance of your downtown and main street.  Many communities have historic or preservation zoning.  Zoning protects older buildings that often have more unique architectural elements than modern buildings.  For many of Tennessee’s downtowns, it reflects a time before cars were everywhere, back when places were designed to be more walkable.  Many communities have a historical society that can help find both facts and resources.  If not preserved, lost historical and cultural sites in downtowns cannot likely be recovered. 

Government partners

TN Department of Economic and Community Development (ECD)

Tennessee Main Street Program / Tennessee Downtowns

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
Smart Growth Resources

Additional resources 

Smart Growth America (SGA)
(Re)Building Downtown

Helpful documents

Tennessee Department of Health & Nashville Civic Design Center
Main Street Transect Infosheet