Small Downtowns Succeed Not By Growing A Lot Bigger, But By Becoming A Lot Better

Posted by N. David Milder


My work, a few years ago, on two small towns with populations under 2,800 has reinforced my feeling that our understanding of what makes a downtown successful is dominated by a paradigm that, while suitable for large districts, just does not seem to be as applicable to small or medium-sized downtowns. I fear that attempts to impose that paradigm on smaller downtowns have led to many dreadful revitalization strategies and plans. In this article I will work toward formulating my view of what the paradigm for a successful small downtown might be, hoping this exercise will stimulate other economic and community development professionals to follow suit.

The Successful Large Downtown Paradigm

Successful large downtowns, according to my understanding of the dominant paradigm, which I described in my 1987 article on downtown crime, have the following characteristics (1):

  • High Multi-functionality. They are multi-functional with a mix of attractive retail shops, restaurants, bars, coffee houses, professional offices, corporate offices, government offices, hospitals, courts, rail and bus stations, hair and nail salons, gyms and spas, museums, cinemas, concert halls, theaters, public spaces, residences, hotels, residential buildings, etc.
  • High Density. These functions are clustered in a dense, compact area and a lot of the development is vertical
  • High Pedestrian Traffic. The multi-functionality sparks a lot of multi-purpose visits and pedestrian trips. The district’s density and compactness help make them comparatively short and easy
  • High Energy and Fast Pace. The density and wide choice of activity venues combined with the strong pedestrian flows, stimulates a sense of high activity and fast pace that at times is even deemed electric or exciting.

Trying to Apply It to a Small Downtown

Size is the defining difference between large and small downtowns. Since multi-functionality and density have almost definitional associations with size, they may be expected to be lower in smaller downtowns. Similarly, pedestrian traffic may be expected to be much lower in smaller downtowns because of reduced multi-functionality and density as well as probably smaller trade area populations. Levels of energy and pace can also be expected to be low in small downtown since they are dependent on multi-functionality, density and pedestrian traffic. However, saying all that leaves little or no basis for explaining why a small downtown is successful and not just small: it has, almost by definition, far less density, multi-functionality, pedestrian traffic, far less energy and a much slower pace that the largest downtowns. What is it then that makes a small downtown successful?  Applying or trying to tailor the large downtown paradigm to the small certainly does not seem to get anywhere meaningful.

The Importance of an Attractive Downtown Setting with Fewer People

Searching for a better approach to understanding the major characteristics of a successful small downtown, I happened upon the results of a large national survey done for the National Association of Realtors that showed 18% of the respondents preferred living in small towns and 22% preferred living in rural areas (2). That means that very significant portions of our population prefer living in towns and areas that are not densely populated or developed. They do not like crowds or living close to other people. To me, these facts suggest that whatever the economic needs of a small downtown, if they are met with too much population growth and increased development density, then the downtown probably will not be considered a success in the eyes of its local user population. Of course, too much density and growth can also be of great concern to large downtown user populations. Where they are very likely to differ is in the definitions of how much is “too much.”

The Importance of an Attractive Downtown Setting with Low Energy and Slow Pace

Why else do people prefer the less populated towns and areas?

The streets of the smaller downtowns I like and want to return to have a charm and slower pace of activity than the large downtowns I enjoy. Visiting them I do not see the high volumes of pedestrian traffic or feel the frenetic pace and electric energy that I often get on streets of Manhattan, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, London or Paris.

Instead –leaving festivals and special events aside– the setting is more languid, devoid of passing platoons of pedestrians, while filled with charmingly attractive buildings, shops, landscapes and public spaces. It is easy to walk on uncrowded sidewalks and safe to cross the streets/roads. There is always at least one good and popular place to eat and drink. Finally, the people we encounter in the shops, restaurants and public spaces are friendly – and often interesting characters. In these likeable small downtowns we feel comfortable and relaxed, yet entertained and/or amused.

Moreover, my experience suggests I am far from alone in having this viewpoint. Most of the reasons I’ve heard people give for visiting a small town or a rural area are on the order of “getting away from it all,” or enjoying a slower and more relaxed pace in a scenic setting. I do not think many people go to a small downtown in search of a lot of “action!”

Furthermore, my numerous, if admittedly non-systematic conversations over the years with residents in the small towns I have either visited or lived in, suggests that they highly value the low energy and slow pace of the communities in which they reside.

Energy and pace can be thought of as continuums with strong and weak manifestations that are displayed in inverse patterns in large and small downtowns.  Though larger downtowns are better known for their fast pace and the sense of excitement that their users enjoy, they also often have charming public retreats where people can go to engage in a more comfortable, languid and relaxed pace. For example, in New York City are the famous and adored Central Park and 250 much smaller “pocket parks,” among which Paley Park is perhaps the best known. Conversely, we sometimes find an air of excitement and a faster pace in these small downtowns, not on the sidewalks, but in a public space and/or inside a bar or restaurant that functions as the community’s “village well,” its gathering spot.


My field visits across the country, conducted over many years, suggest that:

  • In many small and medium-sized downtowns, pedestrian counts may be just a few hundred, or even far less, per day. Without doubt, even if these downtowns are completely revitalized, they can never potentially reach the pedestrian counts or waves of walking platoons that can be attained in denser urban downtowns. (Tourist downtowns might be exceptions.) Density provides an upper bound on a district’s potential pedestrian traffic, but does not in and of itself guarantee the achievement of those levels. This was amply demonstrated by the barren sidewalks of too many downtowns in the 1980s and 1990s that used office development as their engine of economic revitalization
  • In many small and medium -sized communities, even if all the shops were attractive and interesting, there still would not be enough of them to generate lengthy pedestrian trips or a lot of strolling and window-shopping. As Bill Ryan, a well-know downtown analyst at UWEX’s Center for Community and Economic Development, has noted:  ”Most rural small downtowns are anchored by a c-store, a couple of bars and a couple of restaurants, beauty salon, accounting/tax/insurance, and other services.  Not much to stroll through” (3)
  • Many of the successful stores I have observed in these small downtowns, even though they may be relatively small, function as retail destinations – they are not “found” by shoppers strolling through town. Instead, shoppers know them and go directly to them, usually with a specific type of purchase in mind. The pedestrian parts of their shopping trips are often largely confined to walks from and back to their automobiles. This importance of the automobile should not be surprising in rural environments where 50-minute auto trips to jobs and regional shopping centers are normal and where getting to local schools, churches, friends and neighbors usually require the use of a car.

Kaid Benfield’s makes an important distinction between walkability and density. (4) Following that line of thought, it seems to me that density can facilitate and stimulate pedestrian traffic, but walkability plainly entails other people friendly dimensions such as the ease, pleasantness and safety of walking. Walkability is required by downtowns large and small, dense or less dense, whether the pedestrian flow is large or small.

Economic Viability: The Need for a “Right Fit” Strategy and Its Challenges

Any successful downtown will need to be economically healthy. Economic strength generally does correlate with variables connected to size. Consequently, small downtowns are caught in a conundrum: they need enough economic strength to be attractive, viable and successful, but not so much that it threatens the small town and small downtown characteristics that attract its user population. This requires a kind of careful calibration that meshes easily into a “right fit” type of growth strategy.

This means that there is probably some opportunity for growth, but it will be limited in terms of the new buildings and their associated roads, employees and residents.

Of probable greater importance is the improvement of the attractiveness and functionality of existing downtown spaces, making current merchants better business operators and recruiting new capable business operators. This will probably entail:

  • Stronger brick and mortar convenience operations
  • Local merchants learning to be more e-commerce capable
  • Looking for and realizing opportunities to recruit or grow local e-merchants who can sell in a national or international e-marketplace. 

Here are two firms that sell to historical reenactors, movie companies, etc., that are good examples of firms located in small towns that have Internet and catalog sales that are far above what their trade areas could support:

  • Jas. Townsend and Son is located in Pierceton, Indiana, a town with a population in 2010 of 1,095.  They help “historical reenactors, movie makers, theatrical companies, pirates, and regular people find items including clothing, tents, books, knives, tomahawks, oak barrels and lots of other goods appropriate for 1750 to 1840 – especially the American Revolutionary War and War of 1812.”
  • Schipperfabrik is located in Columbus, WI, population 4,991. It “is the world’s largest and most diverse manufacturer and supplier of WW1 Uniforms, equipment and insignia. We pride ourselves on our world class, museum grade reproductions, all made based on original specifications and original pieces.”

Of note is the fact that both firms manufacture much of the merchandise they sell online. While retail and restaurants often take center stage in small downtown revitalization efforts, firms providing blue collar jobs have usually been the economic cogs of small towns. It’s time for more attention to be paid to them.

Creating and implementing an effective right fit economic development strategy will probably be very challenging tasks for small downtowns. These tasks will require an array of sophisticated skills in both planning and execution as well as a level of financial resources that are well beyond what most small towns can afford. This is further evidence that, as Andrew Dane and I argued in a previous article, revitalizing small town downtowns can be very difficult because the challenges they face are often surprisingly complex, while they have meager financial and personnel resources to spend on their resolution or amelioration. (5)

My Take Aways

Based on the above analysis, I’ve come to the following take aways from my reflections about successful small downtowns:

  • There are no linear relationships between greater density, more multi-functionality and higher pedestrian counts and having a successful downtown. Small downtowns succeed not by getting a lot bigger, but by becoming a lot better 
  • Critical to the success of a small downtown is its ability to comply with its user population’s preferences for attractive places with relatively few people, lower energy levels and a relaxed activity pace 
  • Successful revitalizations of small downtowns may strengthen and increase the densities of various economic functions and its consequent foot traffic, but not to anywhere near dense urban levels and, most importantly, not to where the downtown’s relaxed and languid pace of activity is significantly altered or endangered 
  • This is the nub of the challenge in small downtown revitalization efforts: how to right fit increased economic activities and development so that they meaningfully strengthen the downtown, while not violating all the things that its user population values about it, e.g., its charming appearance, slower pace, lower energy, and uncrowded ways of doing things
  • In small communities, strong pedestrian activity is neither to be found nor valued in the local culture, nor easy to generate. A walker friendly downtown is still needed, not  to stimulate highly increased pedestrian flows, but to maintain the downtown’s easy and relaxed pace of activities 
  • Of course, a small downtown might indeed become much stronger economically through a lot of growth, but then the question of whether it is still small is likely to emerge… and generate political conflicts
I do not think I have provided here the full answer to the question of how, besides the dimensions associated with size, successful small downtowns differ from successful large downtowns, but I feel confident that I am on the right road.
Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Mark Waterhouse, Bill Ryan, Andrew Dane  and Laura Krakoff for their helpful comments and edits on an earlier draft of this article.


  1. N. David Milder, “Crime and Downtown Revitalization,” Urban Land, Sept. 1987, pp. 16-19 DT Crime Article
  2. Belden Russonello & Stewart LLC, “The 2011 Community Preference Survey: What Americans are looking for when deciding where to live”, Analysis of a survey of 2,071 American adults nationally conducted for the National Association of Realtors. March 2011, p. 17
  3. In a telephone conversation and comments on an earlier draft of this article. See also: Bill Ryan, Beverly Stencel, and Jangik Jin, “Retail and Service Business Mix Analysis of Wisconsin’s Downtowns,” Center for Community & Economic Development, University of Wisconsin – Extension Staff Paper, Sept. 1, 2010
  4. Kaid Benfield’s Blog, “For walkable cities, it’s not about the density – it’s about finding the right kind of density,” Posted March 4, 2013 on Green Enterprise, Living Sustainably
  5. N. David Milder and Andrew Dane, “Some Thoughts on the Economic Revitalization of Small Town Downtowns,” The Downtown Curmudgeon Blog,   Blog article link

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