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Design Discussions: Documenting Main Street

Design Discussions’ is a bi-weekly, virtual event series, for and by FBM. Every two weeks we explore important conversations about the built environment. Collectively these are a way to bring together multiple perspectives and thinking to explore new ideas about how we can build a better future together.

Main streets are arguably the heart of rural communities’ social and transportation infrastructures. Concentrations of commercial and day-to-day activities (banking, shopping, personal services, trips to the library) orbit around main streets—smaller and older, secondary highway roads that typically run through the centre of towns and that have been superseded by the modern highway.

But these community main streets tend to have lost their way as cohesive-feeling places. They lack physical and social accessibility for a wide array of our population (Nova Scotia has the highest rate of disability in Canada*) and are void of an identity of which residents can feel proud. These attributes are called ‘placemaking’ and can be investigated and enhanced to revive main streets and empower communities struggling with population decline, connectivity, economic activity, and transportation/mobility issues.

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The FBM Planning Studio and its partners have been elevating the conversation towards helping define and rediscover the social, cultural, and economic value of main streets in small communities. A report, the Nova Scotia Main Street Initiative Community Workbook, is the result of months of research and hands-on study, including workshops in three small communities. The 72-page Community Workbook provides principles, approaches, and policy considerations to foster vibrant Main Streets throughout Nova Scotia.

Now in its second phase, the initiative has continued to identify new communities and is working with the Village of Canning, Sydney Mines and North Sydney to engage residents and businesses to investigate the potential for main street ideas and improvements.

FBM and its partners are also working closely with Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal, the provincial body responsible for building and maintaining roads, to develop a main street “readiness report card.” The checklist will contain criteria to help communities understand and identify feasible enhancements to their main street areas that can improve safety and mobility and resulting economic vitality.

“The intersection of municipal and provincial jurisdiction can be confusing; residents aren’t always sure about what they can influence in terms of enhancing their communities,” says Kieron Hunt, FBM Planning Studio lead. “The checklist helps people understand limitations and opportunities and puts both parties in a better position to move forward together.”

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The success of the Nova Scotia Main Streets Initiative continues to generate excitement inside and outside the province. FBM provided material for the Canadian Urban Institute’s ‘Bring Back Main Street,’ a “nationally-coordinated research and advocacy campaign [...] finding the best solutions to ensure [that] main streets recover from COVID-19.” Economic developers and municipalities in Saskatchewan are also applying lessons from the Nova Scotia main street work to communities in the province’s rural areas. In December, Kieron Hunt, FBM’s Planning Studio Lead, led a virtual fireside chat, “Bring Back Main Street: A Rural Context,” at the Saskatchewan Economic Development Alliance’s 2020 Virtual Conference.

The work is being conducted under Connect2, a federal program through the Nova Scotia Ministry of Energy and Mines is “based on a vision that all trips under two kilometres to key destinations in Nova Scotia communities can be made using sustainable modes of transportation.”

Community engagement and research for the Nova Scotia Main Streets Initiative was led by FBM, with assistance from the Ecology Action Centre, Develop Nova Scotia, Nova Scotia Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal, and Dalhousie University School of Planning students.


* Prevalence of disabilities in Nova Scotia (NS Government)