American Downtowns Post-COVID

A 2020 Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) study, Rebuilding Main Street After COVID-19, sought to better understand what the future might look like for downtowns of small and mid-sized American cities. Situated during a period of time when local governments were actively balancing economic needs with public health requirements, the report examined six cities in New England and the Upper Midwest to explore potential long-term changes in lifestyles related to downtown commerce, adaptation by downtown business to continue to thrive, and the role of public policy and planning in supporting these changes.

Four years later, the research continues, seeking to understand questions such as what challenges faced by businesses have persisted since the onset of the pandemic; how have changes and the adoption of new technologies required by the conditions of the pandemic impacted how business’ plans for the future; how has the physical downtown environment shifted since the early pandemic; and a continuation of the question, what role will public policy and planning play in supporting the ongoing success of small businesses?

“Our new report, Rebuilding Main Street After COVID-19: Four Years Later, narrows our scope to Portland, Maine. Like many cities early in the pandemic, Portland eased restrictions to generate new outdoor programming downtown and repurpose space to support small businesses and larger public health and economic recovery goals. While some of these changes are still in place, others have morphed or reverted back to pre-COVID conditions,” says report co-authors Sarafina Fabris-Green and Jeff Levine. “Centering the report on Portland allowed us to be more granular in our understanding of the long-term impacts of COVID-19 on small businesses and how smaller local governments and nonprofits working on downtown vitality can better serve their communities. Which in turn allowed more space for reflections on lessons learned and discussion of pathways for opportunities for similar American cities.”

Fabris-Green, a second year Master of City Planning (MCP) student, is most interested in the way urban design and policy interact to shape people's daily lives, access to transportation, and opportunities to experience joy in our cities. Previously, Sarafina worked in New York City where she leveraged her experience in qualitative research and community engagement to advance a range of projects for nonprofits and government clients focused on mobility, workforce development, and a more inclusive climate transition. Levine, an ​​associate professor of the practice at the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP) and the Housing, Community, and Economic Development (HCED) program group head, is interested in how to apply best practices in theory and research in local municipal settings. His research interests are in the areas where public finance, private equity, and land use planning intersect, as well as how transportation, housing and sustainability interact in small- to mid-sized cities and regions. 

In addition to the MIT team, Cary Tyson, the executive director of Portland Downtown collaborated on the research for the report. "We're thrilled to once again be working with MIT,” says Tyson. “The findings in the report are valuable information that will help guide our efforts as we continue to address the 'new normal' and work to ensure our downtown thrives in the wake of a post-COVID environment." 

Portland Downtown is a non-profit focused on representing the business, cultural, and residential community in the on-going development and management of downtown Portland, creating a cleaner, safer, well-managed downtown so that Portland can successfully compete as an environment in which to live, do business, shop, and visit; and stimulating commercial, retail, and cultural activities through marketing and promotional initiatives that enhance the image of downtown Portland.

“Portland’s downtown recovery follows national trends—hybrid work schedules appear here to stay—and yet is also nuanced—the downtown’s strong tourist economy and presence of housing has helped to bolster its recovery. In Portland, like elsewhere, this recovery appears to intersect with a growing housing affordability challenge that impacts the workforce and customer base of downtown small businesses,” says Levine. “Through stakeholder interviews and analysis of actions taken by the city government, we have identified a number of key findings and actions that could allow the city and its citizens to overcome continuing challenges while seizing opportunities for an enhanced recovery.”


Read the full report