This is an ongoing series from local writer Marianne Brandis about the possible designs and use of Stratford’s Market Square.
The $1.25-million donation from Walmart Canada opens a new phase in the project of revitalizing the Market Square. So, in preparation for public discussions, this is a good time to consider again what makes a good public space.
In future articles I will look specifically and in more detail at public spaces around the world that succeed, and at a few that fail.
There’s no mystery about what makes one place succeed and others fail. Urban designers and planners have been studying this for decades. While some qualities are a matter of individual opinion, most are generally agreed upon. Experts have studied a wide variety of open public spaces – big ones and small ones, formal and informal ones – and they’ve discovered what works.
With statistical analysis and an informed eye, they count how many people come to the space, and observe what they do there, how long they stay, how they move around and form clusters.
Do kids play there? Do businessmen stand and talk? Do people put their feet up and make themselves comfortable? This is the ultimate test of success: how people use the space.
A successful open public space is accessible to people using various forms of transportation. Streets and walkways lead to it. It is also visually connected, so that you can see it from various angles of approach. Stratford’s Market Square is perfect for this – the open area surrounded by heritage buildings is visible from every neighbouring street, and when there are trees planted in it the greenery will make it even more eye-catching and appealing.
The space must also interact with the surrounding buildings. Buildings with “open,” “soft” street fronts – windows and doors and outdoor furniture – draw people like magnets, greatly increasing pedestrian traffic. The more people come, the more will come, attracted by those who are already there.
Such a space is safe; the presence of people, and the openness of the buildings, discourages vandalism. It’s clean, with litter bins provided. As people come to love their Square and to “own” it, the tendency to litter decreases.
Comfortable furniture is essential, and urban designers know from observation what kind of furniture attracts people. Comfortable benches are important, and moveable chairs that can be arranged in clusters, and some tables.
Greenery is part of comfort: big trees that provide shade in summer and some shelter in winter. They divide the large space into smaller, more intimate areas. They are also visually attractive, softening the outlines of buildings.
Water features have from ancient times been part of successful open spaces, helping to cool the air and providing a soothing sound to buffer the noise of the traffic around the edges of the square.
A successful open space makes a good setting for informal, casual, individual lingering and gathering. It’s an especially good sign when people are there in groups, either arriving in groups or meeting friends when they get there. And the experts say that it’s also important to observe whether women are comfortable there, because women are more choosy than men about where they walk and sit and visit with friends.
Basically, a space should be welcoming to men and women, young and old, townspeople and visitors. It’s a very good sign if people bring their own activities – books and newspapers, electronics, board games, musical instruments, whatever.
And the space must be designed for public events as well, because it is where people come for planned public ceremonies and other gatherings. Stratford’s Market Square has been increasingly used for such events in recent years: it is already a good setting, and when revitalized it will be superb.
To repeat: a successful public space doesn’t just happen, it is designed. An empty space with no furniture or the wrong kind of furniture, no greenery or the wrong kind of greenery, will not attract people. Unfortunately, this can happen: in a future article I’ll discuss some open spaces that are unused because they are unattractive.
Stratford has a wonderful opportunity to get it right. Getting it right may cost a little more than getting it wrong, but getting it wrong would be a very costly mistake. The space that we have, with its interesting shape and surrounded by heritage buildings, is a treasure.
Storm Cunningham, in “The Restoration Economy,” writes about cities that are smart about their built heritage: if they are lucky enough, and if they have had enough foresight to save their heritage buildings, they benefit from increased tourist traffic; the city as a whole benefits from higher profits, not only in the historic areas but in the whole city.
“In many European countries, architectural heritage is the single largest tourism asset.”
Stratford has a world-class theatre festival, a world-class parks system, and a downtown containing dozens of heritage buildings. To enhance the beauty and interest of those buildings, and to attract more people who will enjoy them, it deserves a world-class Market Square.
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.