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Indicators of Downtown Health

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At their best, Vermont’s downtowns are vibrant community centers with shops, services, and civic functions all within walking distance. But many of our downtowns are threatened by sprawling development that drains investment away from community centers. In response, the state legislature has created a series of programs – from tax credits to planning assistance to priority for state facilities – that are designed to improve the vitality of community centers.
What we don’t know is whether these and other programs are enough to get the job done. Is the health of our downtowns actually improving? And what exactly is a “healthy” downtown, anyway? In partnership with the University of Vermont’s Center for Rural Studies, Preservation Trust of Vermont, and the State Downtown Program, Smart Growth Vermont has launched an initiative to find answers to these very important questions.

Our goal is to develop a set of indicators of downtown health for Vermont cities and villages that provide community leaders with an objective framework for measuring how well their downtowns are doing. In addition, the indicators will help communities evaluate and track the impacts of designated growth centers on downtowns. Over the next couple of years, Smart Growth Vermont hopes to distribute the tool to communities across Vermont as well as work with the state Downtown Program to incorporate the indicators into the Growth Centers application process.

As of early 2009, the project team has identified and developed four broad categories of downtown health, each of which will be measured via a series of data-driven indicators:

Economic Vitality. This is a measure of economic well being of local citizens and the health of the town’s business and industrial sector. The indicators in this category measure the degree of investment in a downtown as well as levels of development activity.
Livability and Cultural Identity. This is a measure of those qualities that make a location into a place. Community planning experts agree that a sense of place and community spirit are essential to the health of a community. We will be seeking to measure how well a downtown is meeting the recreational, housing and transportation needs of its residents.
Urban Form. This category is focused on spatial patterns of development, with measures of housing density, diversity of development, and municipal infrastructure. These measures will determine if growth is sprawling or compact.
Regional Working Landscapes. A crucial measure of downtown health is the health of the downtown’s relationship with its rural surroundings. Given that one of Vermont’s land use goals is to maintain a pattern of compact settlements surrounded by working rural lands, we have chosen to examine a number of indicators related to farmers’ markets, availability of local products, and use of local foods at restaurants.

The team has identified and begun work with four “test” communities of varying sizes around Vermont – Bristol, Burlington, Montpelier, and St. Albans – that have agreed to help us pilot the indicators over the summer of 2009. With assistance and guidance from Smart Growth Vermont and the Center for Rural Studies, these communities will collect data on each identified metric. The project team will then analyze the data and add, delete, or modify metrics as necessary. We will then develop a weighting and scoring system that translates the raw data into easily understandable measures of the health of each downtown.

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