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Main Spotlight: Beat the Heat This Summer Using Downtown Design

July 11, 2023 | Main Spotlight: Beat the Heat This Summer Using Downtown Design | By: Marta Olmos, Communications Coordinator 
 Shade sails in Driggs, Idaho. Photo from Downtown Driggs Association.

Main Takeaways:

1. Summer weather can make your Main Street less accessible for some people.
2. Good design can help mitigate the effects of sun and heat.
3. Shade, green spaces, water, and other design considerations can help people safely and comfortably enjoy your downtown this summer.
As one of the Four Points of the Main Street Approach, design is a fundamental element of a thriving downtown district. Main Streets emphasize people-centered design, which ensures that the physical elements of a place reflect the needs and desires of the community. Weather conditions play a significant role in how we interact with downtown spaces—it can encourage people to explore or keep them in their cars and homes. A well-designed Main Street takes weather into account to create an environment that welcomes everyone. This summer, look at the design of your Main Street and consider implementing some of these changes to beat the summer heat.

Building Cooler Streets

It is important to consider climate when designing outdoor public spaces. When you are deciding where to install new gathering spaces like parklets, play areas, and public art installations, take some time to think about the climate conditions in various locations around your downtown. Try to choose locations that get less direct sunlight, have ample cross-breezes, or are near green spaces. Check out some great examples of alleyway activation from AARP.
When the sun can’t be avoided, shade should be a primary design consideration. Options include awnings, shade sails, umbrellas, and pergolas. If restaurants in your Main Street district offer outdoor dining options, encourage them to provide adequate shade for their customers. 
Pavement cooling projects are another great way to reduce heat on your Main Street. Reflective coatings and overlays help bounce sunlight away from your downtown, while permeable pavements materials like porous asphalt and pervious concrete allow for surface cooling through evaporation. These methods are ideal for low traffic and pedestrian areas. Learn more about cool pavements here.

Cultivating Greenery

Green spaces and plants of all types can have a cooling effect in your district. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, “Trees, green roofs, and vegetation can help reduce urban heat island effects by shading building surfaces, deflecting radiation from the sun, and releasing moisture into the atmosphere.” Prioritizing existing green spaces will help you beat the heat while also beautifying your district.

Trees are a great option that can provide significant shade. Planting small groups of different types of trees has been found to have a larger cooling effect than standalone trees in lines. Make sure to consult an ecological expert and your city’s public works department to ensure you select an appropriate species and timing when planting trees. 
It is important to place the trees strategically, so they don’t block storefronts and signs, and won’t damage surrounding infrastructure as they grow. This approach will prioritize the long-term health of the trees and your community’s investment in establishing a vibrant urban canopy, as well. Advocate for tree-friendly regulations like St. Petersburg, Fla., which requires that Community Redevelopment Districts (including two Main Street districts: EDGE District and Deuces Live) have a minimum of one shade tree every 200 square feet along walkways and pedestrian connections. 
Smaller plants can also help reduce the urban heat island effect. Just grass alone can have a significant cooling effect: research has found that they can make areas 2 degrees cooler. As with trees, make sure to select smaller plants that are appropriate for your district’s climate and sites—consider reaching out to your local nursery or master gardener association for recommendations on grasses, shrubs, succulents, and bushes.
If your sidewalks are already well-landscaped with plants, consider expanding your greenery cultivation sights to the rooftops. Green roofs have many benefits, including stormwater management, reduced cooling costs, and beautification. Rooftop vegetable and pollinator gardens can serve a dual purpose in producing food for humans and beneficial insects alike. Learn more about green roofs here.

Splashing Out 

Whether you are dipping your toes in or simply standing nearby, water has amazing cooling effects. Adding water to your downtown, or taking advantage of existing waterways, is a great way to mitigate the heat.

If your district is near a river, lake, beach, or other water source, consider building strong connections between it and the downtown core. For example, the Skowhegan River Park in Maine is transforming the nearby industrial downtown river corridor into an accessible outdoor area with a trail network and other recreational opportunities. Strengthening connections between downtown and nearby waterways helps people escape the heat while still engaging with your district. 
Artificial water features are another great option. Splashpads are a fun way for children, animals, and adults to cool down. Connecting these features with public art or other placemaking installations ensures that they fit seamlessly with the character and style of your Main Street. Fountains can also help cool the air while also creating a space for people to gather. Misters can offer a smart solution cooling effect in districts, especially those located in arid regions where water conservation is a priority.
Seemingly basic civic infrastructure, such as public restrooms and water fountains, serve important roles in helping people beat the heat. Public restrooms provide places of rest and respite from the sun, as well as fresh water to rinse faces or prepare cool compresses. Water fountains, bubblers, and water bottle filling stations provide clean drinking water essential for helping people stay cool and hydrated.

Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper

Main Streeters like to dream big, but often, a “Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper” approach is the best way to make much needed improvements. It emphasizes inexpensive, quickly implemented projects that can help local leaders test and iterate an idea to determine its usefulness and impact. Examples include umbrellas, standing fans, and small plants.
Heart of Lebanon’s Helping Hub Station program is a great Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper project. The program provides seniors attending downtown events with folding chairs and umbrellas. Their bright, branded carts full of supplies make it easy for visitors to find the seating and shade they need! The Helping Hub Stations received an AARP Community Challenge Grant in 2022.
Summer weather is just one aspect you should consider when planning your Main Street design. Thoughtful and intentional design has a huge impact on how people experience your downtown. Combined with robust economic development strategies, promotions, and organization, design can transform your community. Want to learn more about Main Street design? Check out our Design Handbook >


Hestia Creations, a Main Street America Allied Member, is this quarter's Main Spotlight advertiser. For more information about the products and services they provide to Main Street organizations, click here >