Monday, 3 December 2012

The Benefits of Town Squares We Need

On Saturday mornings at the Country Market on the CLE grounds, the second floor of the Dove building provides a strangely unique and well-hidden example of what could be bigger and better in a downtown core. Dedicated to hand-made arts, this market draws weekly regulars who stroll around to see what's new, chat, and have lunch or a late breakfast. It supports local farmers, cooks, and artists. Another appealing element is the local talentmusicians, dancers, and otherswho come out once in a while to perform. Busking for coins, they also get a little exposure to a diverse audience.

Thunder Bay doesn’t have a town square. There are pockets here and there that resemble something like it: the food courts at Intercity and Victoriaville, the splash pool at Marina Park, Starbucks at Chapters, a few markets, and the festivals that come to town and resemble a community space for a few days.

But there’s nothing like the functioning town squares typical in Europe or South America. In cities all across Mexico, such as San Louis Potosi, you can see entire families strolling along at 11pm, wandering from one town square to another, and then another, where they enjoy the music, coffee shops, restaurants, and the general atmosphere of a living community in truly public spaces.

Our “community” environments are privately owned, primarily commercial locations, situated indoors. Depending on the time of year, they shut down at 1pm, 5pm, or 9pm. In order to sit, it is expected that you purchase something. When they shut down, they create huge dead zones of space where no one is seen. You could feel depressed walking around in these places after hours.

One result of not having enough good public spaces, like town squares, is that it increases insularity and an instinctive distrust of change, as seen with the protests against the waterfront development. Thunder Bay has many clique groups of people and decades long aversions to certain places and certain people. The layout of the citytwo in one with an industrial middle which includes Intercity and the big block storesadds to the insularity. The layout allows people to easily avoid one another. If you don’t make the effort, you never have to see a bothersome person again. So the opportunity for familiarity, understanding, forgiveness and reflection is reduced by the lack of good public spaces, along with where we place our institutions, commercial spaces, and housing. More simply put, we don’t have enough opportunities to meet each other.

And we distrust ideas coming from people with whom we are not familiar. Especially ideas from those who live outside Thunder Bay and those who have recently moved here. It takes newcomers years to develop friendships; to break into a clique, if at all. We don’t want to hear how life might be better or different elsewhere and we’re unusually protective about what we think is valuable here without really understanding it ourselves. This is not just a problem in Thunder Bay. It’s a national problem with small cities.

In North America, the very people who were supposed to know better, who were supposed to be at the forefront of developing community, abandoned the basics of community development in favour of the ideology of the modern. This began after the City Beautiful Movement was trumped at the turn of the last century with the modernist movement. (For more detail check Wikipedia for the City Beautiful Movement.) North America was particularly susceptible because smaller cities, like Thunder Bay, had only just begun to lay out their cities. Artists, architects, city planners and others jumped aboard the modernist bandwagon, helped along by the love for science and technology. In big cities, towers of finance shot up in competing height. Even now, condominiums across the country shoot up to destroy the community that could have existed at their base.

The author, James Howard Kunstler, expertly describes the history of how North American cities developed. And he bemoans the loss of the beautiful in favour of the modern. Politicians, local business owners and interested parties would benefit greatly from his books: The Geography of Nowhere, Home from Nowhere, and The City in Mind.

Kunstler describes a town square. "The neighbourhood is emphatically mixed-use and provides housing for people with different incomes. Building may be various in function.... The daily needs of life are accessible within the five-minute walk. Commerce is integrated with residential, business.... Apartments are permitted over stores." Etc.

He brilliantly describes how civic responsibility goes hand in hand with designing a community that allows the people who live there to be creative and reflect their culture and beliefs. Thankfully, many City leaders and businesses are on board with making Thunder Bay a beautiful place. The waterfront will provide something resembling a town square, but Thunder Bay is in a unique position to turn its two downtown cores of Port Arthur and Fort William into multifunctional community spaces. Knock down a few decrepit buildings, turn a few streets into pedestrian walkways and town squares can be made.

In the last few years, mayors, city council, and many others have worked hard to improve the city. They should be commended greatly for beautifying Thunder Bay. For those of us who grew up here and felt the stagnation, and left, we've returned to see wonderful changes taking place. There's optimism in the air that is encouraging young people to stay. And encouraging those who left to return. 

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