By Dan Goodman
Once upon a time, cities grew from the center as one cohesive system, kind of like a miniature big bang. The plaza in the center from which the city developed was called the town square. Smaller plazas throughout the city would often mark centers of individual neighborhoods. These days cities are planned and built to sprawl over massive geographic areas, with rarely a specific urban center.
There is one important feature for a good town square, it needs to be pedestrian friendly. In many cases throughout Europe particularly these plazas are completely car free. These plazas are part of a larger concept embodied by the traditional style of urban design, which builds at the human scale to favor the experience of pedestrians over the convenience of auto traffic.
Look at the difference between auto-centric development and human scale development.
Car centered neighborhoods have their comforts, but they lack soul. When there is no shared spaces, there is no shared culture. It’s hard to imagine anything like the pictures below being built in the United States. After all, where does one even park their car?
You leave your car at home. Either that or you move into a neighborhood walkable enough that you don’t need one. No car=fewer expenses, a lower carbon footprint, and a healthier body. This may seem like a stretch for a culture as auto-centric as The United States. It’s understandable, cars are amazing. Rocketing through the world in your own personal bubble of comfort. Road tripping around America is quite enjoyable, taking in the scenery and feeling the freedom of the open road, but consider your daily commute. Depending on where you live this could be a nightmare. How many people would miss sitting in traffic if they lived in a neighborhood where they could walk to work? Cars are not going away anytime soon, but scaling back our dependence on them could serve us well if and when another recession hits.
I digress, back to the town square. Deep down Americans love the idea, which is why amusement parks, resorts and college campuses emulate this design. Even Las Vegas has incorporated the idea into their casinos.
We crave a place to congregate with our neighbors. Somewhere free to the public in which we can exist outside of our cars and homes. Somewhere for open markets, late night strolls, concerts, or whatever else people organize to happen. A true city center can act as the core of a community, or it can just be a pleasant place to walk around aimlessly.
A town square also has the added benefit of serving as a stimulant for small businesses. This is because of the fundamental difference between driving through a city and walking through it. When driving, one is less likely to notice new businesses along the road, and is more likely to stop somewhere familiar. How many times have you been lured in by those giant golden arches peeking over the horizon, oblivious to any smaller locally owned restaurants that may be along the way. When walking, however, the hole in the wall vietnamese restaurant that just opened up is more likely to catch one’s eye.
So what to do? Get rid of the zoning laws that enforce parking minimums and land use specifications. It turns out there are plenty of potential plazas all over the place. They look like this:photo link
A lot of the infrastructure is already in place. Shopping malls are continuing to close across the country because they rely solely on the success of the mall itself. By infilling the area around these strip malls and big box stores, developers could create self sustaining mixed use urban areas. Allowing homes and apartment complexes to be built in among retail and restaurants creates a built-in customer base for these businesses. Developing around a central plaza creates a public environment that is more likely to achieve this semi-independent economy.
The mixed use model has been gaining popularity with developers who have noticed that young people prefer walkable neighborhoods. With downtowns filling up with millennials all over the country, there’s a demand for walkable neighborhoods. We can look to the old cities of Europe for reference, re-learning how to build our cities in the traditional way. What better way to create high value real estate than to emulate the places people already want to live.