PLACEMAKER WEEK ASEAN SERIES: Donovan Rypkema on Main Street, Economics and Built Heritage

Donovan Rypkema is the Principal of PlaceEconomics and President of Heritage Strategies International, working in the intersection of economics and built heritage. He wields vast experience in a successful US-based program, ‘Main Street’, which focuses on commercial district revitalisation utilising existing heritage assets.

We talk with Donovan about Main Street, the focus of his presentation in the upcoming Placemaker Week ASEAN. Tickets are still available, for those keen to attend.

Can you tell us more about your domestic work on the Main Street program in the US?

While I had absolutely nothing to do with the invention of Main Street, the program has been my client since almost the beginning. I’ve worked in every Main Street state, and nearly 1000 Main Street communities, either conducting training programs or as an Economic Restructuring (now known as Economic Vitality) specialist.

I developed the Community Initiated Development approach; a publication, workshop, and hands-on ‘road map’ through the development process, particularly in pivotal development projects where the private sector doesn’t take the lead.

In recent years much of our firm’s work is on long-term analyses of the economic impacts of statewide Main Street programs (nett new jobs and businesses, tax revenue generated, etc), along with ‘softer’ metrics such as number of volunteer hours and attendance at Main Street sponsored events.

How has placemaking efforts within the Main Street program changed in the last 40 years, and why?

Initially the program was developed for the downtowns of towns, generally 20,000–50,000 in population. Seeing its success, much smaller places wanted the program too. Larger cities also began asking for Main Street assistance, but in the Neighbourhood Commercial Districts within the city.

Second, Main Street was originally conceived as a ‘project’ lasting three or four years. It was assumed that within that time, the principles of Main Street would be firmly established and the revitalisation efforts would continue without a formal program. That proved not to be the case at all. We realised that downtown revitalisation is an ongoing process. Thus, it became more consistent with other economic development efforts that are seen as ongoing rather than an initiative lasting a few years.

Third, while volunteers are still central to Main Street, it has become apparent, particularly in larger cities, that more of the work needs to be done by paid professionals. There has been a shift from annual fundraising for the core operating costs to establishing an ongoing revenue source. This increases the reliability of funding and reduces the time devoted to raising money.

What is the impact of Main Street’s program? Is it possible to replicate it in Southeast Asia?

Quite simply, Main Street is the most cost-effective form of economic development that exists in the United States today — not just in downtown revitalisation, or historic preservation, but any form of economic development.

Whether similar results can be obtained in Southeast Asia is an open question. One reason Main Street is cost-effective is that much of the work is done by volunteers. These volunteers are not limited to building or business owners who have a vested interest in seeing economic improvement in the business district. There are high school students, retirees, heritage advocates, downtown residents, and citizens who want to see their downtown (or other commercial center) succeed. Whether that commitment by volunteers is available in Southeast Asian cities and towns is yet unknown.

Here is what gives us confidence to explore bringing the Main Street Approach to Southeast Asia. The ‘4-point approach’ of Main Street (Design, Promotions, Economic Vitality, and Organisation) are not American specific. It corresponds to the ’Four Forces of Value‘ (Social, Physical, Economic, and Political) in market economies; factors that push the value of a commodity up or down.

Commercial district revitalisation is ultimately about increasing value, including buildings and businesses within the district. It’s also about increasing the value of the district to customers, residents, local government, and the community at large.

If the intent is to increase value, that ultimately means bringing the Forces of Value into play. And the discipline of the 4 Points of Main Street does that.

How will your firm that handles international work, Heritage Strategies International, approach work in Southeast Asia? Would the same mechanisms be used to evaluate built heritage, or to revitalise a commercial district in Southeast Asia?

One of the reasons I’m so pleased to be coming to Placemaker Week ASEAN is to meet the people who can help us respond to that question. It would be presumptuous of us to suggest that a successful revitalisation approach in the US can be implanted in Southeast Asian towns in the same way.

How the mechanisms need to be adapted in the evaluation of the built heritage, but also organisationally, economically, and through promotions, will merit thinking through as well.

Maybe this is the best part of the Main Street approach — it is a framework for using heritage assets as the basis of commercial district revitalisation. A framework, not a straight jacket. So exactly how Main Street will have to be adapted to meet the needs of communities is Southeast Asia we don’t yet know. But we are most eager to learn from locals how that might happen.

Are there issues raised in conversations regarding the climate crisis that placemakers in Southeast Asia should keep in mind?

Absolutely. It is a challenge for placemakers throughout the globe. Heritage — in its built form and also intangible heritage — is increasingly recognised as essential for sustainable development and resiliency strategies.

Heritage buildings in many places are particularly vulnerable to climate change, like rising sea levels. It is common in towns and cities that the oldest (and therefore most historic) buildings are close to the water; either oceanfront, or near lakes and rivers. They are at the front lines of impact from catastrophic storms, gradual rise of water levels, and periodic flooding.

How we identify which historic assets need to be given the highest priority, and also how we incorporate tangible/intangible heritage into climate change mitigation strategies are issues that placemakers will need to address for at least a generation into the future.

Donovan Rypkema will be one of the speakers at the inaugural Placemaker Week ASEAN, 4–8 Nov 2019. He will go more in-depth into the mechanics and successes of Main Street, and the question of how it may be implemented in Southeast Asia.