Small businesses and the vitality of Main Street

Mehta, V.

Mehta, V. (2011). Small businesses and the vitality of Main Street. Journal of Architectural and Planning Research, 28(4), 271–291.

People use the neighborhood Main Street for shopping but also for other leisurely active and passive engagement, social affiliation and interaction, sensory stimulation, and relaxation. Traditionally, small businesses have made up a fair share of businesses on Main Street. Small businesses have been an integral part of the American culture of entrepreneurship, individualism, and self-reliance and have played an important role in American economic development. Community development programs recommend supporting small businesses for their social and economic benefits. This paper examines the role of small businesses in supporting public life on the neighborhood Main Street. The study was conducted in two cities and one town in the Boston, Massachusetts, metropolitan area. Extensive behavior mapping and interviews were conducted to determine the relationship between social interaction and businesses. The findings expand our understanding of the social value of small businesses and suggest a strong relationship between small businesses and the vitality of Main Street as a result of four qualities of small businesses: uniqueness, engagement, friendliness, and responsiveness. These findings have implications for urban design, community planning, and economic development policies because they suggest that small businesses influence their immediate public space by paying more attention to it than large businesses. Small businesses provide qualities that help make Main Street a good place for people to interact.

Main finding
The author finds that small businesses contribute to the social life of Main Streets in their uniqueness in goods and services, engagement through sidewalk adornment and personalized street fronts, friendliness, and responsiveness to community needs. These businesses had more attractive and interesting features that contributed to permeability between public and private space, as well as lingering and social interaction among passersby. For these reasons, users preferred small businesses over chain stores. The author suggests that policy makers value small businesses not only for their economic value but also their contribution to the vitality of public space.

Description of method used in the article
The author conducted behavior mapping observations and interviews (n = 51) at three Main Street locations in Boston over eight months in 2005. Main Street vitality was measured by the number of people observed engaging in social, group activities.

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