For my work at the Center for Rural Communities I have traveled all over the north woods.
In between oversized plaster animals and a surprising number of bigfoot’s hometowns, CRC staff and I take the time to inventory the historic downtowns of rural communities across our region. We take note of the kinds of businesses, the presence of community art, parks and plazas, trees and flowers — we even count the number of trash cans. All this is an attempt to capture what it’s like to move through these spaces.
So, after years of strolling through all these towns, and living in ours, I have come to appreciate the value of walkability. A town that feels like it was designed to stroll through has tightly packed buildings that come right up to the sidewalk, the availability of outdoor seating, and limited, slow-moving traffic create a cohesive space to go and to gather.
The entire downtown should be a destination, not one specific storefront or corridor. Variety is interesting, local coffee shops are nice, but nothing is more essential than this continuity. No amount of decorative lamp posts, murals, or historic buildings can make up for the disruption of a parking lot on main street.
In Ashland, we have delightful banners and flowers; we have mosaic trash cans and recycling bins (recycling bins are very rare in rural downtowns). Main Street is off the highway, sparing downtown from some degree of noise and congestion. Modern local businesses operate from historic storefronts, celebrating past and progress all at once. In short, Ashland feels brimming. There are places to live, work, and play all on the same block.
I am not so sure, however, that Ashland feels like a continuous downtown.
Between Ellis Ave. and 9th Ave there are nine asphalt interruptions. Parking lots make the Ashland Baking Company, where I worked this summer, and the Chequamegon Food Cooperative, seem a world away from the South Shore Brewery and Alley. Between the public lot and the Co-op lot, Chapple Ave becomes its own island.
The sidewalk is a gathering place, a corridor, and an invitation — a parking lot denote the edge of town, a border separating the world of vehicles and the world of pedestrians. Frankly, they’re ugly. And they’re intimidating. A block consumed by a parking is a visual obstacle, it lacks the intrigue of enticing storefronts. The perceived distance to the end of the block is stretched by this monotony and the inconvenience of watching for cars.
The intruding asphalt on Main Street is by no means a death sentence for downtown. Our community is engaged enough to walk across a parking lot. The pride we feel in this place is communicated in murals and in the encounters with friendly faces you encounter on a stroll downtown.
Historic downtowns are a hallmark of our region and essential parts of our community narratives. Downtowns are for gathering, for welcoming visitors, for people. Let’s keep that in mind the next time there is a parking lot on the city council agenda. Our cars do not deserve a front row seat in our community, that space is for us.
Kinsey Neal is a 2018 graduate of sustainable community development and a research assistant at the Center for Rural Communities. Find out more about CRC’s downtown surveys at northland.edu/northwoods-community-survey.