TLC: An Approach to Activate Downtown Rockford

Rockford, Illinois

After decades of abandonment, downtown Rockford is finally coming back. Rockford, a mid-sized city in north-central Illinois about 90 miles northwest of Chicago, is not unlike many other Midwest cities its size. Its post-war, car-oriented sprawl had riddled its downtown with vacant storefronts, deserted skyscrapers, and a palpable feeling of gloom. Many attempts had been made to revive the city center throughout the latter 20th century and early 2000s, but each one was unsuccessful and left the community dissatisfied. Those attempts, however, did produce multiple downtown plans.

In 2014, the City of Rockford brought in Farr Associates and others to create what many stakeholders thought would be just another plan, the Strategic Action Plan.

However, the Strategic Action Plan team immediately recognized that Rockford needed a different approach. The team mined all prior plans for downtown, brought forward the relevant recommendations, and realized why people were dissatisfied. Almost all the recommendations from these plans called for high-investment, long term strategies. Coupled with the effects of the Great Recession, many of these ideas never stood a chance.

Out of this disconnect, the TLC –tactical, lean, climax– approach was born. TLC breaks down how to realize a goal through short, mid, and long-term steps that are based on realistic ground conditions. By keeping small-scale victories fresh, the approach keeps momentum going and empowers people to not feel thwarted when they come up against the inevitable barriers to large redevelopment.

TLC Rockford short to long term
A visual representation of the TLC approach. Source: Farr Associates.

Part of what makes the TLC approach so powerful is its ability to promote “pilot” projects and other temporary ideas. When substantial changes are understood from the beginning to be temporary, those people with reservations can be made more comfortable with the idea. Often times, after seeing a tactical project’s success, they then become enthusiastic supporters who then lead it through lean and climax implementation.

Former Rockford Mayor Larry Morrissey had this to say about the TLC approach:

"I came into public office in 2005 as a passionate believer in the tenets of New Urbanism and an active member of CNU. But for years, we struggled to find the right mix of large scale, long-term projects and immediate, actionable street-level opportunities. The Farr TLC approach helped us find the balance we needed. Our community now sees and feels the energy of our activated streets and supports the long-term projects in the development pipeline. It's a sustainable formula that can be introduced and scaled into almost any market."

The power of this approach was evident in Rockford. Even before the Strategic Action Plan was finalized, community stakeholders jump-started the approach in multiple pilot projects. Temporary bike lanes were added on the State Street Bridge in August of 2015, and have reappeared in the two following summers. Multiple new events have been created to increase downtown's vibrancy including Shop the Blocks, which brings businesses out of their stores and onto the sidewalk, and Rockford Day, which celebrates anything and everything Rockford. Parklets have also popped up throughout downtown.

TLC Rockford parklet
One of many new parklets in downtown Rockford. Source: Photo by Max Gersh used with permission from the Rockford Register Star and

Benjamin Chauvin, owner of a local coffee shop called Rockford Roasting Company, told the Rockford Register Star, "On nice days, I used to try to put a few more tables out there, but it was hard to walk around. Now [with the parklet], if you look outside, people sit out there all the time."

Since the implementation of the Strategic Action Plan, downtown Rockford has once again become a destination. Multiple small businesses have opened up there, and the vibrancy has spurred a growing downtown residential market. Other Rockford projects have also followed the TLC approach including Rockford City Market which is currently moving from its lean phase into its climax phase with the creation of Indoor Rockford City Market, set to open in 2018.

With the resurgence of downtown Rockford underway, their Strategic Action Plan proves that sometimes all you really need is just a little TLC.

The Strategic Action Plan was a 2016 CNU-IL Charter Award-winner.

Top photo: Downtown Rockford is now a destination for many parades and festivals. Source: Tyler Yomantas.

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