This is the next in a series of opinion articles about the future design and possible use of Stratford’s Market Square.
Among the holiday cards that we send and receive, there are probably some that show a lively open space in a town or village, with children playing, adults standing in groups talking, carolers singing, perhaps a horse-drawn sleigh.
In my mind those images blend with the research that I’ve been doing into the history of several small towns along the lower Grand River, south of Brantford. When the research data comes to life before my mind’s eye, what I see is an extremely lively scene. Everything in those towns was close together: the mills on the river, the general store, the church, the blacksmith shop, the school.
In those compact small towns there would be bustle all day long. People mostly walked to work, to school, to church, to the store. There would be workmen coming and going in connection with their jobs, women shopping or cleaning windows or going to the cobbler or visiting the sick and elderly, a clergyman on his rounds, children going to and from school (including going home for mid-day dinner).
There would be wagons and carriages and people on horseback. Travelers would come not only to stay overnight but also to eat a meal, do business, have the blacksmith replace a shoe that their horse had lost or repair damaged harness. There might be peddlers on the street. Few jobs were sedentary, and not very many of them kept workers indoors all day long. Most recreation was also outdoor and physical, and it took place not far from home.
This picture at first appears to be a bit of nostalgia, but its significance goes far beyond that. There are good reasons why greeting-card manufacturers use such images: they are appealing and evocative. People enjoy that kind of social life.
Sociability is not only necessary for most people’s emotional well-being but it is infectious, as has been shown by quantities of research into social behaviour: where people are gathered, other people join them.
Trying to recreate a 19th Century village in the heart of Stratford would indeed be an exercise in nostalgia, but creating a 21st-Century lively Market Square is not only doable but very desirable. Maybe not little kids throwing snowballs but people of all ages chatting, using their electronics, listening to a busker, coming and going among the businesses in the area, everyone happily crossing the Square without having to deal with traffic and buses and parked cars.
People having meals or coffee or a glass of wine at outdoor restaurant tables. And other people, seeing that the place is popular, also gathering, adding to the critical mass of sociability and supporting the businesses in the area.
Lively town centres matter. They’re not luxuries. There’s a definite movement nowadays to make towns and cities more sustainable. Demand is increasing for places where services and pleasures – not only shopping but museums and theatres and open public spaces – are close enough to each other and to residential areas so that it’s all walkable.
In Lakewood, Colorado, a dead shopping mall in the midst of suburban sprawl has been made into a town centre called Belmar, with compact housing (including accommodation for families, single people, and the mobile elderly), office space, green space, a wide variety of stores, a public arts program, and a theatre complex.
This and a number of similar projects are re-imaginations, in 21st-Century terms, of the kind of older city that worked. These older cities still work, and they are powerful magnets for attracting new business, new residents, and out-of-town visitors, as well as increasing the sense of place and home that is felt by local people.
In Stratford, we already have the basis for what could become a much livelier town centre. Such centres are good for business because, just as social activity attracts more social activity, thriving downtown businesses attract more business, which attracts more social activity, which attracts more business. A lively town centre is a win-win place.
For more information about Belmar, see http://urbanland.uli.org/development-business/belmar-urbanizing-a-suburban-colorado-mall/.
Marianne Brandis has lived in Stratford since 1996 and is a full-time writer. She is the author of a number of books – see www.mariannebrandis.ca.