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This is a recap from the 2011 October EcoHour with Kennedy Lawson Smith.

“You can read a community’s history in its buildings,” said Kennedy Lawson Smith to a full house at October’s EcoHour event. Kennedy is one of the nation’s foremost experts on commercial district revitalization and main street economics and has been a leader in downtown economic development for 25 years.

Despite her expertise these days, many years ago she was working in the town of Charlottesville, VA and faced with a problem. How do you get people who work downtown to stay downtown – giving life to local businesses and revitalizing urban centers? By creating a daily ‘soap opera’ acted out by locals to highlight downtown restaurants, people stopped driving to the nearest mall for lunch and started eating at local businesses. By the end of the first week, the number of people eating lunch at local restaurants jumped from 50 people a day to 500 people a day! As Kennedy says, “I was hooked and I never looked back.”

Kennedy spoke to the many ways that small towns and community centers have been left in the dust by large shopping centers and big box stores. As people and businesses start leaving, there’s a surplus of space leading to more vacancies and lower rent prices which begins a downward cycle. But this isn’t the end for these communities. By identifying areas where no one is competing, providing resources and tools, or pursuing local and regional investments communities can often turn the cycle around and start the process of revitalization – bringing their communities back to life.

Community revitalization not only has an important economic component, but an environmental one as well. By re-using and rehabilitating older buildings, people can save money and benefit from the energy efficiencies that many older buildings incorporated before central heating or air conditioning. Kennedy mentioned a building built in the 1500s with an oak roof expected to last 300 years. The builders had planted oak saplings outside so that in 300 years, there would be a ready supply of oak to re-build the roof. Throughout her talk, Kennedy emphasized the importance of looking ahead, being creative with resources, and re-using what you already have to work with. In a sense, learning to plant our own saplings for years ahead, so that communities continue to thrive.

Join us next month on November 15 to hear a panel of three women discuss illegal logging and sustainable forest management.

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