It’s a truism among urbanists that small towns in the United States are dying.
Here in Indiana, the data confirms the bleak prognosis: Main Streets are filled with boarded up stores, wig shops and formerly vibrant emporiums that have been turned into sad “museums.” Young people move away as soon as they can, leaving a graying and resentful population behind.
The phenomenon is not restricted to the United States; everywhere, cities are booming while small towns are on the same, sad trajectory. So a recent report in the Guardian was eye-opening.
On a lane in what was once considered eastern France’s grimmest town, a street artist is up a ladder finishing a mural, the independent bookshop has a queue at the till, the organic cooperative is full of customers and Séverine Liebold’s arty independent tea shop is doing a brisk trade….
Just over a decade ago, Mulhouse, a town of 110,000 people near the German and Swiss borders, was a symbol of the death of the European high street. One of the poorest towns of its size in France, this former hub of the textile industry had long ago been clobbered by factory closures and industrial decline. It had high rates of poverty and youth unemployment, a shrinking population, and more than 100 shops empty or boarded up. The centre had become associated with gangs….
Today, Mulhouse is known for the staggering transformation of its thriving centre, bucking the national trend for high street closures.
In the past eight years, more than 470 shops and businesses have opened here. Mulhouse is unique in that 75% of new openings are independents, from comic book stores to microbreweries and organic grocers. It is one of the only places in France with as many independents as franchises. And it is one of very few places in France where more shops are opening than closing.
Mulhouse was only one of a large number of dying small towns in France.
French political powers woke up late to the problem of dying town centres. Outside the Paris region, an average of 11% of high street premises lie empty, similar to the UK. But France, which has a powerful hypermarket industry and lobby, has for decades hastened town centre decline by allowing out-of-town superstores to mushroom over kilometres of dull grey hangars on the outskirts of towns.
Leaders only recently turned to the issue, fearing boarded up shopfronts and vanishing services could help usher in Donald Trump-style populists. Polls showed that in small French towns, the fewer the services on offer – notably post offices – the higher the vote for the far right.
What caused this town’s turnaround? How did Mulhouse buck the trend?
The simple answer is public investment in public amenities.
Mulhouse set out to rebalance the housing mix. Generous subsidies for the renovation of building fronts expedited a facelift of more than 170 buildings. Security and community policing were stepped up. Transport was key – with a new tram system, bike schemes, shuttle buses and cheap parking.
But making the town’s public spaces attractive was just as important, with wider pavements, dozens of benches, and what officials deemed a “colossal budget” for tree planting and maintenance, gardening and green space. Local associations, community groups and residents’ committees were crucial to the efforts.
The idea was to create a town center where people could feel good, where they could congregate. The town re-appropriated the town’s center as a kind of agora, the place where everyone could meet. Olivier Razemon, the author of a recent study called How France Killed Its Towns, says town centers should be seen as a theatrical backdrop to life’s encounters, with the understanding that: “People don’t go to the town centre just for shops, but because it’s pleasant, because they want to meet up.”
There were several other aspects to Mulhouse’s revitalization. An important element was emphasis upon independent, “home grown” enterprises offering wares not available in the big box stores.
The major driver of the town’s resurgence, however, was its substantial public investment in public amenities: public transportation, restoration of the built environment, generous plantings and landscaping that made the town’s public spaces attractive–all of the elements of what urbanists call “quality of life.”
In so many small towns, unwillingness to spend tax dollars on these “quality of life” elements creates a vicious cycle of disinvestment and abandonment. Mulhouse chose to invest heavily in them instead, and to create a virtuous cycle. It worked.
There’s a lesson there.