For hundreds of years the main street was the center of every town's activity. It was a place where people lived, worked, shopped and conducted business. The typical development pattern included multi-story buildings with residential units on upper levels and commercial spaces on the main floor. People lived close to where they worked. A butcher, a baker, a doctor, and a merchant lived upstairs from their shop and their customers were their neighbors. The street was the center of vibrant activity. People walked and socialized, children played and the community life flourished.
The last half of the century changed the way we live. The industrial age brought with it the separation of life and work. Residential subdivisions become separated from the workplace and entertainment and social life was "zoned" elsewhere. At the same time the popularity and increased affordability of a private car made it possible to drive everywhere. The lack of investments, and in particular, the dismantling of the public transit systems, soon turned a car into a necessity.
The development patterns had to change to accommodate our car-centered lifestyle. And with that the main street had to transform. The historic streets that catered to pedestrians had to follow the car-oriented development patterns. Streets got widened and the sidewalks narrowed, trees cut down to make room for additional lanes of traffic. Multistory mixed use dense development gave way to drive-thru restaurants, banks, pharmacies. Large parking lots in front of the buildings and billboards took over our urban landscape.
The historic main street transformed beyond recognition in last 65 years but current discussions about sustainability and the energy crisis leads us to the need to reduce our dependency on driving and restoring the concept of the main street. Zoning codes are changing to make mixed-use, high-density developments possible again. And communities all over the country demand more walkable neighborhoods.
People want to bring back the pedestrian-oriented development to their communities. They want to be able to walk to a coffee shop to meet with their neighbors and would like to be able to buy milk and organic groceries in their corner store. In my own 'back yard' volunteers discuss streetscape amenities and apply for grants to promote wellness through increased safety and improved pedestrian environment on Federal Blvd.
As our country emerges from The Great Recession the construction industry will have to adapt to new market demands. One by one drive-thru's will transform into storefronts filled with locally owned restaurants, coffee shops and retail. Mixed-income housing on the levels above will provide customers to those businesses. As an architect I see tremendous opportunities as well as responsibilities for our profession. Architects will have an obligation to serve their communities by providing "People Oriented Development" advocacy and design. This may mean that we will have to come out from behind our desks and actively participate in the development process. There is so much potential and work that needs to be done in order to restore the main street in our communities.