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The Market Square: Moving forward

This is the next article in a series from local writer Marianne Brandis about the possible design and use of Stratford’s Market Square.

In recent years, many cities have created or revitalized their public open spaces. I’ve written before about the advantages of such a space; all the cities that have them report good results in terms of amenities for residents and visitors, more customers for merchants in the area, and a reduction in crime.

In my last few articles I’ve focussed on the process of designing and creating such a public space. A couple of years ago Stratford’s Market Square team collected case studies about a number of projects, and others are available in books such as the ones that I’ve mentioned in these articles. The variety of approaches and processes can give us ideas and examples.

Pittsburgh’s process is interesting. They started with a parking lot. Instead of having a design competition – as Stratford had – they organized a series of design experiments. For instance, they removed half of the parking.  They widened the sidewalks. They closed part of the area to traffic. They made better pedestrian connections in the area. Then they observed the effect of those experiments and based their design on them.

Portland, Oregon, also began with a parking lot. A key public official in Portland formulated the goal as being the need to “develop a city square in the centre of the downtown retail core to provide breathing space, a focal point, and a gathering place.”

There was at first a good deal of opposition to turning the parking lot into pedestrian space. At a certain point the frustrated designer gathered his team and, with donated paint, painted the entire square design on the parking lot. That was the final push needed.  The revitalization was approved, and now Pioneer Courthouse Square is one of the great public squares in the world, cited everywhere as an example of what can be done and how many benefits it brings to the community. Ten million people visit it every year.

In Kingston, Ontario, as in Stratford, the historic market square had become a parking lot. There was much concern among local businesses about what would happen if the parking were removed. Now, the “more effectively used community space attracts higher pedestrian traffic, resulting in more interest and investment in the surrounding area.”

The process always has to start with what there is. Many cities start with a problem that has to be solved: too much crime, or a deteriorating downtown.  Detroit faced the latter, and the creation of its very successful Campus Martius is part of a larger downtown revitalization process.

Guelph’s Market Square is – like Detroit’s – part of a process of revitalizing the whole downtown and encouraging more people in live there so as to keep the city compact, reduce urban sprawl, and preserve prime farmland for growing food.

Like Pittsburgh, Stratford has, in effect, also been setting up experiments, mainly by hosting events in the Market Square, either one-day or one-weekend occasions or longer-running ones like the Slow Food Market in summer. These events have required a temporary removal of some or all of the parking.

In summer, several businesses on Wellington Street put tables and chairs on the sidewalk, and they are well-used.  Revel Caffè is attracting more pedestrian traffic into the actual Square. So our process is underway, and we can all observe the results.

While each city worked out its own process, there are common elements. In most cases there is a design competition, which produces a design concept. Then, by means of a great deal of dialogue with the stakeholders and the whole community, the project is moved forward until there is an actual design.  Experts are involved at all stages.

Funding has to be found, and in most cases that comes partly from the city, partly from businesses and other organizations, partly from private donors.

It’s encouraging to know that – in spite of the sometimes understandable concerns of some segments of the community – the effects of turning a downtown parking lot into public, pedestrian space have been excellent. Those who initially opposed the concept saw and acknowledged that the revitalized space was good for business, good for community life and social connections, good for the city’s image as a vital space that attracted both visitors and new business to the downtown core.

The experience of other cities is of huge importance for Stratford; what I’ve given here is only a very small sample of the information that is available. As our project moves forward, we can draw on all of it for guidance and encouragement.

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.

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