* The target area must be accessible. First assess the state of its streets, sidewalks, and transit service. If people can't get around, nothing else will help. Your downtown improvement committee should be as diverse as possible -- including at least one woman, senior citizen, teenager, person of color, and disabled person -- to ensure its usefulness across demographics. Start with cheap improvements, then add more expensive ones as visitor traffic increases.
Good low-cost improvements: If there are no or too few curb cuts, add those (and not the kind with dangerous traction bumps, use concave grooves or traction tape). Add benches, at least one per block. Spot-patch the worst potholes in streets and sidewalks. Make sure there is a bus or shuttle that connects downtown with population clusters like an apartment complex. Install bike racks. 1 car parking space = 10 bike parking spaces.
Good high-cost improvements: There should be a big bus shelter with benches at each end. If it's a long street, put one in the middle too. Repave badly damaged streets or sidewalks. Install a public facility with showers, lockers, and toilets to encourage human-powered travel instead of vehicles. Add at least one charger for electric vehicles.
Especially check connections to other places. Can people reach downtown from nearby apartments or other dwellings? Does it connect to the nearest neighborhood park? What about shopping centers or destinations? Can people walk or bike to reach the downtown, or is it only accessible by vehicle? If you can add bike paths without wrecking the rest of traffic flow, that helps a lot.
Integrate transportation. Make it easy for people to combine car, bus, bike, walking, and other modes.
Get your walkscore and bikescore for the downtown. Use that to gauge improvements.
* Remove barriers to use. People left for a reason. Maybe they just chased newer, shinier things but often there are reasons why downtown doesn't appeal. Common problems include:
Rent, sale prices, property taxes, etc. may be out of proportion to current value. The city may hire assessors to calculate current value to adjust these.
Zoning and other regulations may make it illegal or unfeasible to do anything with the properties. Appoint a committee to review and update these. Remember that most downtowns are very well-designed places, but later people did a bunch of stupid things. Use the physical structure of the place to imagine how it used to work, and research its history, to create effective guidelines.
Old buildings may need renovation. You can either raise funds to support that, or waive some of the fancy modern requirements in the interest of actually accomplishing something rather than leaving vacancies forever.
Finance often favors big projects, which are bad at reviving a downtown. Either get the local banks on board, or cut them out of the loop and create alternative financing options.
Women, people of color, immigrants, the poor, people with disabilities, and other disadvantaged groups often struggle to start a business -- but if they can, it creates growth both for them and their neighborhood. Find ways to assist these hard-working groups to gain a foothold. Does your town have an ugly past with racism? Make reparations by giving some space to black or indigenous entrepreneurs.
Noise, crime, stenches, or other unpleasantness may discourage not only businesses but also visitors. Make sure downtown is a pleasant place to be.
* Consider what a community needs. There are short and long lists of important businesses for a small town to have, which work very well for stocking a downtown. Reach out to local residents; see what they want and what they can do. Above all, build character.
Some good things for a downtown: several restaurants, several clothing stores, several shops that sell different gifts or amusements, several places offering different classes (e.g. crafts, a martial arts dojo, music lessons), at least one salon, at least one grocery store, at least one practical store (hardware, yard and garden, etc.), at least one social center (a community club, senior center, etc.), a coffeehouse, a thrift store, a bookstore (used and/or new), a physical recreation facility (a gym, a dance club, etc.), an entertainment facility (a gaming arcade, a movie theater, etc.), and a craft or hobby shop.
Businesses with a long wait time -- a hair salon, a school tutor, any health clinic -- create fantastic attraction because a driver can drop off a passenger there and then browse around downtown until the person is done. Try to get some of these downtown.
Are there businesses that have outgrown their current space? Encourage them to move downtown and provide incentives.
Are there people who would like to start a business? Show them a list of target businesses the downtown needs and see if anybody wants to launch one of those. This is especially promising if you have a college nearby; connect with its business department to help graduates set up.
You could establish a fire/flood fund to assist damaged businesses reestablishing themselves downtown.
Ideally, look for a big building -- a warehouse, a former office building, etc. -- that can be subdivided into a business mall where many small businesses can get a toehold. As they grow, they are likely to seek larger space downtown, freeing up the small space for a new tenant.
Promote shopping local. Prioritize local businesses over chain stores. For every $100 spent at locally owned businesses, $68 stays in the local economy. When spent at a chain store, only $43 stays local.
* Assess live-work space. Most downtowns are old, and that means they frequently have retail or office space below with apartments above. Often they are surrounded by rowhouses, multiplexes, or small apartment buildings within easy reach of many places to work.
Consider the concerns of live-work space. It may need support or protection.
Live-work space tends to have doubled access points. If you want to make the front-facing street into a pedestrian boulevard, then make sure the back-facing alleys are fully accessible to delivery vans and people with handicaps.
A similar development pattern that relies on front-facing vehicle traffic may instead have narrow, obscure spaces between and behind buildings. Turn these into bicycle or walking paths.
* Provide greenspace. People need nature to stay healthy. Greenspace makes people happier and more active. Lack of nature harms people. A green downtown is an attractive downtown.
Plant street trees. This is among the biggest bang-for-buck improvements a town can make anywhere.
Landscape with native species. Use these in medians, sidewalk planters, and so forth. Consider planting a garden for birds or butterflies in a scrap of unused land.
Include at least one pocket park. Most downtowns have at least one gap where a building was torn down but not replaced. Put in some flowers, a picnic table, a garbage can, a drinking fountain, and you have a pocket park.
Check for an abandoned parking lot, another common feature of decrepit areas. These can be made into alternative parking for bicycles, a skatepark, a chalk art gallery, a playground with painted games, a basketball shooting gallery, or a garden with raised beds.
Where is the nearest neighborhood park? Try to connect the dots with street trees, native landscaping, pocket parks, etc. to encourage birds and other wildlife downtown. People enjoy watching them.
* Use the power of 10. The more things to do, the more people will gravitate there.
Each place should have at least 10 things to do. In this context, a place could be a plaza, a park, or a large store.
Downtown itself should be a destination. That's an area, usually spanning several blocks, that has at least 10 places in it. Given that each place contains 10 things to do, that is 100 things to do, although some of them (walking, people-watching, shopping, eating) may appear in multiple places.
Your town or region should then have at least 10 destinations. You might have a downtown, a community center, a campustown, and so on.