Reimagining the role of our main streets. Commerce or connection?

Of course there are some shining examples of thriving #mainstreets throughout regional Australia (#highlight them for me if you will in the comments), however, many of the regional town I visit are really struggling.

Why? As Ready Communities co-founder Chad Renando and I have discovered as we’ve spent time in our pilot community, Kempsey NSW #readymacleay in recent months we are told the main street of the CBD is looking pretty quiet because: people aren’t shopping because they are broke or leave town to shop, because they can’t get what they want locally, rents are too high, it costs too much to run a store, shops are in poor repair, the atmosphere of the CBD isn’t enticing…

While each issue may be just a little more dire post Covid, none are new. Short of implementing new legislation to penalise lazy landlords, or encourage a new generation of main street entrepreneurs nothing will really change until we reframe the purpose of our main streets from being places that are purely about commerce, to the importance of the main street as a place of connection.

And the other part of the reframe is, of course that we all take just a little bit of responsibility for preserving our main streets, if for no other reason than doing our bit to keep our communities together.

I sat in my car in the carpark in Kempsey last week and listened to people who were gathered at the end of a local mall laughing, singing and telling stories. Many call this anti-social behaviour. And while it could be that on some days, on this day these were the happiest people in the town.

These people were together, making time to connect on a beautiful summer day under the shade of a tree. Yeah, I know there are other things to say about this and no, I haven’t changed my name to Pollyanna, however, on this day there were things these people knew and demonstrated about building community that many around them had forgotten.

With the importance of connection in mind I joined a new colleague for coffee out front of a coffee shop on the main street and before we knew it there were two, three then four extra chairs pulled up, all people making otherwise solo trips to the local cafe who used the opportunity to connect.

What is the purpose of our main streets?

Certainly, in years gone our main streets have been a place of commerce where sparkly-eyed entrepreneurs hung up a shingle and sold their wares. But there was something more important in play, something that could be the key to bringing people back to our main streets and perhaps a thing we took for granted back then because it came naturally – our main streets were places to connect.

Have our main streets become too transactional in today’s economy? A place to get the closest park, run in and grab or do your thing and run out again. Or are we simply moving too quickly to stop for a coffee, to meander through the streets?

Speaking with people about what’s happening in their main streets I often see fingers pointing in the direction of landlords, or the economy, or wobbly pavers.

But rarely do I hear people talking about their own role in supporting their main streets, nor do I hear people reminiscing about feeling part of a community as they walked the streets, although I’m sure those conversations are had.

Losing our main streets is more than an economic crisis, looking at communities through the lens of connection (and noting that loneliness is a growing cause of illness in Australian communities) we have a new set of reasons to support and grow our main streets. Because they are the heart and sole of our communities.

I wonder if we value the opportunity to connect enough to create this shift?

Or, is the warm and fuzzy feeling we get as we punch in our credit card numbers to PayPal enough to make us feel good these days?

Personally, I’m not so sure about that.

Learn more about Ready Communities and our work in regional community and economic development here

Image by: Photo by Mike Petrucci on Unsplash

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