Town Squares, the Park at the Center of it All

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The Month of July is National Park and Recreation Month in the United States. This month Rural Resurrection will have a series on Parks and Recreation (no, not the TV series). We’ll look at park improvements, different types of parks, and new ways to look at parks. Last week we looked at pocket parks with Park it in your Pocket! Today we’ll take a look at a type of park that is often not thought of as part of a park system, town squares.

Town squares have been around for thousands of years. One of the earliest examples of town squares is the Greek “agora”. An agora was an open space in the downtown of a community where a wide range of political, social, and fiscal activities took place. That overriding purpose has not changed over the years.

In the Midwest this is especially true for many communities as in the early years the town square was often the center for activity within a town. Wooden and eventually brick storefronts would line the edges of this hub of activity. In many county seats the county courthouse often sat majestically in the center of the square as the center of attention. Others had permanent stages for performances, political rallies, and other events. But a majority of them provided a central greenspace before the desire for dedicated parks emerged as the community grew.

Town Square

The town square as a community park has seen many forms that has varied from town to town. Each one unique as a finger print. Regardless of the configuration or amenities provided the park space provided by a square, it is an important park of each town’s park system.

Unfortunately, the popularity of the town square as the center of activity for a community waned over the years. The emergence of the automobile, big box stores, sprawl development and a variety of technologies has drawn interest away from the core of the community. Often, many of the buildings surrounding squares sit boarded up. With the lack of foot traffic and high overhead of maintaining a building over 100 years old, commercial use is often fiscally infeasible. With the lack of focus on squares many towns shift maintenance funding for the park space of a square to other areas. The park within a square hence falls into disrepair.

Evolution is Key

Thankfully, many town squares have persevered through these tough times. They have evolved to the changing demands. Rarely anymore will you find general retail thriving in these downtowns. The more shrewd business owners in downtowns have discovered a niche that isn’t served by the local dollar store or McDonalds. Unique, higher-end eateries, artisan breweries, and specialty stores dot the landscape along the town square. These unique draws reignite the interest of many to come back to downtowns.

But with a run down square at the center of it all it is hard to draw in the interest of these unique businesses that revive your downtown. Investment is needed in town squares to draw these unique anchor businesses in. Yes, you can start with sandblasting and repainting the park benches. But a bolder statement is needed.

Game Kiosk

Game Kiosk in Iowa City

Game Kiosk Sign

Game Kiosk Sign

Some communities have moved away from fountains that are shut off during the winter months. Fountains just sit there taking up space during that span each year. Communities are instead removing the fountain in favor of “water plazas” that are a surface for walking or street furniture when not in use.

Don’t Shy Away from Tech and Innovative Ideas

Also, it is important to embrace technology. Many communities have not embraced the ever-evolving landscape of technology into their parks and it shows. But park benches and tables can now sometimes come with USB charge ports. A number of communities have installed outdoor speakers, pumping in music to these spaces. Other cities are offering pubic WiFi for those who still can’t get away from having their phone stuck to their face.

A few communities are daring enough to shut down their square to automobile traffic. Yes, permanently shutting down the roads that surround the square from automobile traffic and turning the space into a walkable mall. Wary of such a risky proposition? Why not shut it down intermittently? Maybe once a month host events that validate shutting down automotive traffic.

Cater to a Variety of Interests

But if you do this, provide more than one activity. If you are going to have a farmer’s market, add a band and a food truck. Maybe a movie night after a chili cook off. Getting closer to being able to use “something for everyone” in marketing an event is ideal. Being one dimensional in today’s society is a recipe for failure. Multi-attraction programming is they key to successful events that bring life back to a square.

Town squares need to evolve and improve to serve communities better. Don’t be afraid to try something new. The only wrong effort is not doing anything at all.