Government didn’t create the historic village centers that make many Maine towns so attractive. It was a range of economic forces, available transportation and a sense of community that led people to build homes, shops and offices close together, often near a church or green space.
Local governments today can’t create new downtowns in towns that don’t have them, but, as the last half-century has shown, governments can get in the way and stop them from forming. Zoning that separates business and residential districts, and that requires houses to be far apart and far away from services, makes it almost impossible for the 21st-century village center to emerge on its own.
Many southern Maine towns have been struggling with this issue and have come up with different ideas about how to create new downtowns. The best idea may have come in Standish, which has adopted a new concept in land-use planning called “form-based zoning” in its downtown area.
Instead of zoning by use, form-based zoning looks at things like height limits, setbacks, the proposed building’s outside appearance and its relationship to other buildings and the street. It doesn’t matter whether the new building is a store, a doctor’s office, a restaurant or a single-family home.
Over time, this could result in a community of people who want to live near where they can shop or work, and want to have the option of sometimes getting around without a car. As gas prices continue to rise, this is an option that many people may find attractive. Clustering services in a dense village center would also be a benefit to people who drive in to shop.
This is not an overnight achievement. As Orono Town Planner Evan Richert said in a recent interview, towns should think about its taking 25 years to get started on developing a downtown through natural growth and another 25 for it to really take hold.
That makes sense. Suburban sprawl development did not take hold overnight either. It was created by a multitude of individual choices by consumers, developers and land-use regulators in the decades after World War II, when cars became easily affordable.
Form-based planning is one tool that could provide a framework for individual decisions that could result in a modern take on a traditional downtown. It won’t happen all at once, but it’s a good place to start.