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Strategies for Increasing Equity in Central Business District Revitalization Efforts

Small and medium-size cities, including those in both urban and rural areas, have often pursued revitalizing their central business districts (CBDs). Cities pursue this work because thriving CBDs/downtowns can (1) create entrepreneurial business and job opportunities; (2) bring human and financial resources into the community, fostering additional investment opportunities; and (3) deepen or enhance residents’ sense of community and their perception of hope for the community’s future. While cities and other key stakeholders often pursue these efforts with the intention of improving the lives of all residents within the community, benefits tend to accumulate to property owners and other well-capitalized individuals and have limited direct benefit for those living in poverty. Without an intentional focus on equity, those renting in the district and those with fewer connections to information and decision-making are unlikely to benefit from any positive growth. There is a need to help communities understand how the benefits from their revitalization efforts will likely be distributed and to provide them with direction on possible strategies that can be used to better infuse equity principles into their efforts. This article provides guidance on achieving greater equity. We take core practices identified in the literature as contributing to downtown success and recommend ways that they can be adjusted to ensure a more equitable approach to revitalization (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2014). This overlay demonstrates some of the ways that these practices can be adapted to create opportunities for all residents.

Vibrant Retail Core. The most cited characteristic of successful CBDs is a vibrant retail core (Burayidi, 2013; Robertson, 2001; Filion, Hoering, Bunting, & Sands, 2004; Ferguson, 2005), which is cultivated through strategies such as mentoring small businesses, increasing access to capital, sponsoring “shop local” campaigns, and creating local events. While these programs are typically open and available to all businesses, there is often less participation by minority- and immigrant-owned businesses. This may be because of limited outreach, previous negative experience, a lack of trust in institutions outside of their community, language barriers, or lack of time or support staff to allow the business owner to engage. Strategies that have helped to overcome these barriers have included investing time to get to know business owners, their concerns about participating, and any cultural barriers that might exist, as well as investing extra time when additional assistance such as completing applications or preparing financial information is needed. Building these relationships may require working collaboratively with organizations or business or resident leaders who are trusted among the targeted community. For programs that focus on capital access, there may be the need for more flexible credit requirements or forms of collateral or longer financing periods. Seeking philanthropic resources to provide funding may help to bridge the gap, particularly if it can be used to fund a revolving loan in the future.

Downtown Housing. Successful CBDs include a range of land uses, including market-rate housing (Burayidi, 2013; Robertson, 2001; Filion et al., 2004; Ferguson, 2005). Unfortunately, this fact has led many communities to see all low-income housing in their districts, whether subsidized or not, as liabilities and to work to eliminate it from their districts. For communities that wish to implement a more equitable approach, they might seek to attract a combination of market-rate and “workforce” housing while also protecting the affordability of some rental units in the area so that they are accessible to lower-income households. This can be done with inclusionary zoning to ensure that affordable units are included in any new developments, through community land trusts and housing trust funds, and by preserving federal tax credit units.

Leadership and Organizational Support for Revitalization Efforts. The downtown revitalization literature strongly shows that partners, organizational support, and individual leaders are critical elements in fostering redevelopment success. The question, of course, is which leaders and of which organizations? In a downtown focused on equitable development, it is important to assess which organizations and stakeholders are represented and which are not. If some segments of the residential or business community are not represented or are underrepresented, leaders should begin fostering relationships. Inviting these organizations to meetings is not enough, though; there needs to be a true commitment to listening, collaborative thinking, and shared decision-making. As the diversity of leadership and volunteers increases, there is greater likelihood that the priorities and strategies of the group will begin to take into consideration the interests of a broader group of residents than those who have traditionally been in power and benefiting from downtown investments.

Cohesive Branding and Promotion Strategy. Successful CBDs foster an environment where people want to shop, live, and play, and they make sure people know how to find their districts (through branding) and that they have a reason to visit (e.g., promotional activities) (Filion et al., 2004; Burayidi, 2013; Runyan & Huddleson, 2006). These marketing activities help to draw in residents from the larger community, region, and beyond. Exactly who is drawn in and whether all people feel welcome depends upon the focus on the events, the initiatives, and the overall brand. A district should consider the extent to which local resident groups and represented cultures can see themselves in the brand, and if they cannot, whether that brand is the best option for the community. Those developing the brand need to make sure that a diverse leadership team, including authentic resident leaders, uses collaborative decision-making to develop the brand and any related events. This group can help to shepherd the development of the district brand to ensure that it is representative and dynamic. It can also ensure that the promotion strategy is inclusive and welcoming and incorporates cultural events of significance to a broad range of community residents.

This article has outlined a few of the ways that downtown revitalization strategies can integrate and prioritize equitable development in small to midsize cities. These same principles are applicable in larger cities as well, but there are additional issues, such as varied development patterns in neighborhood commercial districts and the size and scale of large downtown areas, that would need to be considered when devising a strategy. Regardless of the size of the city, it is critical to infuse principles of equity into redevelopment strategies. Doing so can help to ensure that all residents are given equitable access to wealth and opportunity, facilitating their ability to continue living and thriving in the community.



Burayidi, M. (2013). Resilient downtowns: A new approach to revitalizing small- and medium-city downtowns. New York, NY: Routledge.

Filion, P., Hoering, H., Bunting, T., & Sands, G. (2004). “The successful few: Healthy downtowns of small metropolitan regions.” Journal of the American Planning Association,3, 328–343.

Ferguson, G. (2005). “Characteristics of successful downtowns: Shared attributes of outstanding small and mid-sized downtowns.”

Pastor, M., & Benner, C. (2008). Been down so long: Weak-market cities and regional equity retooling for growth. In R. M. McGahey and J. S. Vey (Eds.), Retooling for growth: Building a 21st century economy in America’s older industrial areas. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press.

Robertson, K. A. (2001). “Downtown development principles for small cities.” In M. Burayidi (ed.), Downtowns: Revitalizing the centers of small urban communities (pp. 9–22). New York: Routledge.

Runyan, R. C., & Huddleson, P. (2006). “Getting customers downtown: The role of branding in achieving success for central business districts.” Journal of Product & Brand Management, 1, 48–61.

Smart Growth America. (2015). (Re)Building downtown: A guidebook for revitalization. Retrieved from

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. (2014). Downtown success indicators: A review of the literature.

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