Key learnings for Main Streets

I was privileged to present at the Mainstreet Conference a fortnight ago with presenters who made some great points.

My presentation began with some sobering statistics. Australia spends about 54% more online per person than the US, the highest in the world. The reason was the dissatisfaction with the physical shopping experiences in terms of service, price and visual merchandising. But, this also represents great opportunities.

Kevin Luten from Behaviour Design Works talked about change – changing attitudes and behaviours. It’s so relevant to retailers at the moment. There’s some negative sentiment around that, if it continues to grow, it won’t matter what innovative and new approaches retailers try, they will have lost people.

His approach is to allow people to see, feel, act. See what they need to do, connect with their emotions, which leads to action. Bricks and mortar retailers, and precincts, have a perfect opportunity to affect this – show consumers the advantages of shopping in store, provide a service that responds to emotions and make it easy to act. Simple! Sounds like it but of course it’s not. Need a fresh pair of eyes on your strategy? We are here to help.

The other point that Joe Manton from the Institute of Access Training Australia made was about access. Is your strip a great place for the elderly, the blind, parents, teenagers, basically any sort of demographic group (and anyone wanting to use a clean safe toilet!)? As a member of the audience pointed out to much nodding of heads – access issues should just be about helping those with a disability (which is of course an important and necessary aim), they should just be standard practice because they help everyone. Indeed.

There are a couple of points from my presentation I want to stress:

  1. Creating an emotional connection can be achieved through storytelling – how you, your products or your area came to be, continue to grow, support the local community or provide a valuable service and why. For those watching ‘The Voice’, have you noticed that the ones Australia is voting for have been telling the stories of who they are, hardships they’ve overcome etc. It connects with people, creating great TV in the process! How can you tell your story to your customers?
  2. To move people into changing their shopping habits, you need a story people can believe in. Talking about shopping locally and the impact that has on the whole community is a movement that people want to support. Here’s the video I showed that conveys that. And there’s more examples on our Facebook page if you want to like us.

It’s challenging times. But there are opportunities to make a real impact.

What are the major challenges in your area and how are you fixing them? We’d love to hear about it in the comments below.


What are the new opportunities for Mainstreets?

Last week the National Mainstreet Australia conference was held in Melbourne. They were some really interesting ideas presented and I thought I’d give my quick reflections on some of the opportunities I saw.

Michael Baker gave us a tour through the US and its shopping centre design – they mimic mainstreets or town centre configurations. Why does this model work?

  • They have places to gather such as open piazzas
  • They include art or water features
  • They include uses for a broad cross section of demographics (so places for kids, facilities for older people etc)
  • They are using climate control options even on the ‘outside’ shops.
  • They are plenty of dining options

This idea has been slow to catch on with Australia’s shopping centre developers (although Point Cook in Victoria is a recent example), which is an enormous opportunity for main streets. With a bit of tweaking, Australian mainstreets could be more inclusive, comfortable and pleasing to be in than any shopping centre. What are we waiting for?

Suzie Mathews from City of Sydney’s presentation on their approach to developing a night time economy was fascinating. For years they had been looking at how to reduce or stop alcohol related problems at night. They’d tried different initiatives like early closing but the impact was small – until they changed perspective.

Some parts of Sydney are as busy after midnight as they during lunch time. Why not cater to this market and create a thriving night culture in Sydney? So that’s what they are doing, with the goal of leading the Asia Pacific in food and live music (watch out Melbourne!).

Tourist info booths are now open til 11pm, the Museum is putting on entertainment on Tuesday nights, portaloos are being bussed in just as they would for a major event (the idea being every Friday and Saturday night is a major event in Sydney). Their goal is to encourage more small business to open later, and provide more options for people who do want to use the city at night.

If people want to gather, give them the opportunity to do so safely. City of Sydney has provided facilities, reduced red tape and other restrictions that were in the way of allowing a night economy to thrive. The economy continues to grow.

Some other learnings were the success of highlighting precinct character by the City of Melbourne, the opportunities to create something unique and different with pop up shops, how addressing traders concerns was key for continuing with innovative initiatives for one Melbourne council, and one council in SA uses community advisory boards extensively to plan community events and build cohesion.

I think what these presentations show is that with some holistic thought about what people want, where they are going, and how a precinct can encourage and enhance this for mutual benefit, main streest will thrive. Of course these are no easy quick fix solutions (although there will be some quick solutions in a long term strategy), and will take commitment and planning. But the rewards are huge, and help is available!

There will be more in this in next week’s post (haven’t even touched on my presentation yet)! Thanks so much to the organisers. I am excited by the innovative thinking I am seeing and the acknowledgement that there’s much more that we can do to create great mainstreet experiences, we just need to think outside the square a little.

It’s walking, talking, place building

How do you keep the conversation going, and expand one person’s ideas on what city life should be? You ask locals to walk around towns and start conversations themselves.

So that is the idea behind Jane’s Walk, held on the first weekend in May every year. The event honours the work of writer and activist, Jane Jacobs. She wanted to see a more pedestrian friendly version of urban planning take focus. As Jane’s Walk explains:

Jane’s Walk celebrates the ideas and legacy of urbanist Jane Jacobs by getting people out exploring their neighbourhoods and meeting their neighbours. Free walking tours held on the first weekend of May each year are led by locals who want to create a space for residents to talk about what matters to them in the places they live and work. Since its inception in Toronto in 2007, Jane’s Walk has expanded rapidly. In May of 2011, 511 walks were held in 75 cities in 15 countries worldwide.

The main Jane’s Walk event takes place annually on the first weekend of May, to coincide with Jane Jacobs’ birthday. Jane’s Walks can be organized and offered any other time of the year by enthusiastic local people or organizations, although the first weekend in May is where we focus our organizational energies and resources.

Jane’s Walk honours the legacy and ideas of urban activist and writer Jane Jacobs who championed the interests of local residents and pedestrians over a car-centered approach to planning. Jane’s Walk often takes Jacobs’ ideas to communities unfamiliar with her ideas, in order to advance local engagement with contemporary urban planning practices.  The walks helps knit people together into a strong and resourceful community, instilling belonging and encouraging civic leadership.

Jane’s Walk helps make cities and streets safe for all users. We encourage people to get out and walk not just for recreation, but for basic tasks of daily life, shopping, schools and work. Walking not only improves health, it increases social cohesion and connection.

Anyone can host a walk, and they happen all around the world. A date to mark in your calendars for next year as an opportunity to promote your area, improve your street’s walkability and gather your community in conversation.

Guest post: Local bike paths mean higher house prices from Rachel at AECOM

On April Fool’s Day Fairfax Media posted a video affirming that the new inner Sydney cycleways have had a positive effect on property prices. It was no joke. It seems that having a bikeway right outside your front door is good for your health and the value of your house.

The City of Sydney’s network of separated cycleways have attracted their unfair share of controversy; threats of legal action, opposition from traders and a protest rally ironically attended by 200 pro-bike lane supporters and no opponents.

Fairfax interviewed Nic, a local real estate agent, who said that the Bourke Street bike path has had a “positive effect and influence on sales in the area” as well as Don, an owner-builder, selling a recently renovated million dollar property. Don explained the combination of a garage at the rear and the bike path out the front had added a premium of $100,000 to his house. Like many, Don had been sceptical, particularly because of the loss of on-street car parking, but now that the Parisian style bike boulevard with gardens and street lamps has been finished, even he agrees that Bourke Street “looks good”.

There is no denying that Bourke Street is beautiful; lined on either side with grand Victorian homes, exquisite cafes and a stunning canopy of trees. The bikeway has, as Lord Mayor Clover Moore says, made Bourke Street, “a very special street”. We all want to live on a beautiful street and we all want to know what the tangible benefits of improved social infrastructure could be to our street, our neighbourhood our city. So should we, and can we, use economics to support the case for more safe and separated bikeways in our cities?

Yes we should. But, implementing anything that requires changes to on-street car parking is controversial because many traders believe, rightly or wrongly, that customers will go elsewhere, that ‘convenience’ will be destroyed and that bike riders don’t spend money.

Research in 2007 by Alison Lee sought to identify the economic value of replacing car parking with bike parking in shopping strips. The case study in Lygon Street Carlton in Melbourne showed that cycling generates 3.6 times more expenditure. Even though a car user spends more per hour on average compared to a bike rider, the small area of public space required for bike parking suggests that each square metre allocated to bike parking generates $31 per hour, compared to $6 generated for each square metre used for a car parking space, with food/drink and clothing retailers benefiting the most from bike riders.

A model developed in the US, as part of research that examined factors affecting property values in Delaware, showed that a bicycle path would be expected to increase property values by about US$8,800. The research done by David P. Racca and Amardeep Dhanju in 2006 indicated that the presence of a bike path either increased property values and ease of sale slightly or had no effect.

A study in Pittsburgh found that both property owners and real estate agents both agree that bike paths led to increases in business and property selling prices. Although these increases in value cannot be strictly linked to the bikeway, the increase is noteworthy. Pittsburgh is not an isolated case. Realtors in North Carolina reportedly added US$5,000 to the prices of 40 homes adjacent to the Shepherd’s Vineyard Bikeway. Similarly results from the 1999 Bicycle Plan by the City of Vancouver indicated that 65% of realtors would use the bikeway as a selling feature of a home. Another study in 1997 showed that bike paths were placed third in a list of thirty-nine features that home buyers defined as crucial in persuading them to buy a home in a new community.

These case studies provide a basis for action and demonstrate that bikeways can help to support a diverse and resilient economy with positive benefits for individuals.

The fundamental problem we have in Australia is that we need to improve our data collection efforts. It is impossible to monitor change if we don’t measure change. A prime example is Brisbane’s South East Freeway Bikeway, adjacent to the M3 Motorway, designed for commuter cyclists. The bikeway is predominantly used by male cyclists for longer distance commuting trips with almost all trips made during the morning and afternoon peaks. We know who is using this established bikeway now but we have little knowledge of cycling behaviour in the area prior to the bikeway and no contestable evidence of people relocating to the area to use the bikeway. Without this ‘before’ and ‘after’ evidence cycling, as a transport option, is powerless to compete for government funding.

Bikeways cost money and their merits are often called into question. If we really want cycling to be a central part of our cities more data is needed to show a direct correlation between a city’s bikeway program and the city’s economy. Planners, engineers, economists, policy officers and decision makers alike, need to increase the quantity and quality of pre and post construction data collected. They also need to develop a consistent methodology to justify and evaluate the benefits. Finally they need to work in partnership with business associations to measure and monitor change, in an objective manner, with appropriate scale analysis.

Despite the early controversy to change, Sydney’s Lord Mayor knows the bikeways have been a success. Votes for her in the polling booths close to the bikeways have been maintained or increased… seems like bikeways can be good for wallets, waistlines and the pollies that support them.


Rachel Smith is a Transport Planner at AECOM, Thought Leader, Bicycle Blogger at ThisBigCity, Creator of Cycling Super Highways and Curator at the BMW Guggenheim Lab.