CNU Dispatch: Madison’s reality distortion field, or how to do a farmers’ market
by Geoff Kelly - posted 9:40 am, June 10, 2011
Madison, Wisconsin is an incredible place, in both the literal and figurative senses of the word. The city has tangibly more vitality than say, Denver, at about one-sixth the size.
That’s the thing that immediately struck me—how few people it takes to create a vibrant, energetic city. At least in this country, that is. Madison is in complete defiance of the way that the vast majority of U.S. cities and towns have developed, with their ubiquitously dead downtowns and mind-numbing, soul-sucking, vitality-sapping, automobile-based sprawl. In this sense, the city has much more in common with Europe than North America.
You’ve got to be good to be lucky
Madison got lucky, however. It’s both a college town and a state capital. The 40,000 or so students at the University of Wisconsin virtually guarantee a lively pulse of street life and nightlife. There are thousands of well-paid middle-class jobs, from university faculty and staff to the jobs in state politics, government agencies, and museums. Many world-class cultural institutions are the inevitable product of both the university and the state. All of these things add value to the city, attracting talent and investment in a virtuous cycle.
On top of that, Madison was never an industrial city, so it never suffered deindustrialization, and never contained the over-concentration of noxious industrial activities that, over time, helped to devalue cities like Buffalo. Madison also never really experienced the attendant race and poverty problems, which tended to drive out the middle class in the decades following World War II.
It’s tough to screw up that equation. Not that some cities haven’t. Around here, building the North Campus of UB in Amherst immediately comes to mind. But Madison made some very wise choices over the last few decades that have helped turn it into one of the hippest and most valuable mid-sized cities in the country.
The cold-weather straw man
Before discussing this further, a perniciously popular myth about weather must be debunked. Madison’s success has absolutely nothing to do with its climate. The brutal Wisconsin winters are far worse than in Western New York, with nearly as much snow. Summers are hotter and more humid.
Obviously, Madison’s luck doesn’t include its weather. Yet we spend a lot of time carping about our weather in Buffalo when it’s really no different from Madison, Chicago, Boston, or Toronto, or everywhere else in the Northeast and Midwest, and in many cases much better. This pathetic bellyaching is not just demonstrably wrong, but disempowering. It perpetuates the ignorant stereotype among ourselves and outsiders. It’s lazy. It fatalistically absolves anyone of any responsibility or ability to do anything. It robs us and future generations of hope.
There it is. Weather myth debunked. Now can we move on?
Design and behavior are the same thing
So, finally, here is the disclaimer: Madison is a reality distortion field. Yes, the conditions that undergird much of that city’s success can’t be duplicated in most other places. However, that success wasn’t divinely ordained, either. Their reality is simply the cumulative product of the choices and sustained efforts of Madison’s leaders and citizens. They’ve intentionally created a city for people, not cars. This is clearly reflected in the design of their streets and public spaces, which is the focus of this piece—and why Madison was an obvious choice of venue for the Congress for the New Urbanism.
In the United States, public space mostly comes in the form of the street, and sometimes the square or park. These spaces are often referred to by planners as the “public realm,” which can be thought of as all of the spaces owned collectively by the public, accessible to all of us.
Public space can be designed for different purposes. If one wants social, public activities like an outdoor market, a memorial service, or some other such event, one needs a specific type of space for that to take place. But in recent decades, almost all older cities and towns either mangled or entirely removed most of their good public spaces, usually in the effort to accommodate the automobile. As a result, we’ve lost much of the knowledge, and even the language, of good urban planning: witness the misnomic appropriation of words like “plaza” or “square” in the branding of suburban strip shopping centers.
Speaking of which, one of the primary goals of the CNU is to reclaim the language and revive the knowledge of civic art and placemaking. In terms of the design of public or civic space, the concepts of square, plaza, and park are a very good place to start.
Before World War II, American towns and cities did a pretty darn good job of creating all types of civic space, including market plazas. Here in Buffalo, over the last 60 years or so, the city removed four or five outdoor marketplaces that were distributed throughout various neighborhoods. Like almost every other American city, many were converted into parking lots. Others were demolished, often along with their surrounding neighborhoods, in the name of “urban renewal.” Yet others were simply put out of business by the new economics of sprawl and the supermarket.
Meanwhile, the vast majority of the suburbs were designed around the car from the very start, and have never had any of these types of civic space. Even the most basic and normal civic activities, such as parades or fairs, don’t work very well in a strip mall parking lot or on a traffic-clogged suburban arterial. You can’t have a civic life if you don’t have good civic spaces. This is a big part of the reason why suburbs are often described as isolating and socially disconnected, even by some of their staunchest advocates. And, because of their car-centric design, low population density, and segregated-use zoning, most post-WWII ’burbs will probably never be able to build and sustain successful public spaces other than large, drive-in parks and sports complexes.
The design of parks and other types of civic space is much more sophisticated than just plopping down some trees or baseball fields. Urbanistically, there are three basic types of civic space: the square, the plaza, and the park. These fundamental types are designed to meet the three basic needs of a community: the civic, the economic, and the recreational. Properly designed, all types of public space also serve the fundamental social needs of people. Meeting these needs is essential for healthy, thriving civic life. For the purposes of this discussion, here are short definitions of the three types:
The square (known otherwise as a town square, neighborhood square, or village green, depending on context), usually fronted by civic buildings like the town hall, is designed for civic functions like parades, speeches, and demonstrations. The center of a square is the natural (and intentional) place for civic monuments, or in the case of Madison, the entire Capitol building, whose dome creates a beautiful vista for the eight streets radiating outward from the square.
The plaza (sometimes called a market plaza or market square) is for economic activities such as public markets, fairs, and festivals. The design of a plaza has some interesting caveats: most activities associated with a plaza have high foot-traffic, and vendor vehicles must also have access to the site. These activities are tough on grass surfaces, so plazas typically contain little or no greenspace. This runs counter to most Americans’ intuition; market plazas have been absent from our culture for several generations. However, all that hardscape doesn’t make plazas any less attractive than squares or parks; some of the most beautiful public spaces ever created are found in the lovely market squares of Europe.
The park (and the playground) is designed for differing types of passive and active recreation, respectively. A note on parks: in the U.S., we’re quite familiar with large, sprawling types of parks, typically a simulation of the natural landscape, intended to be an escape from hectic urban life. We tend to lack the smaller, more formal, more accessible types of local parks that help comprise beautiful, integral neighborhoods.
Another subtlety that may surprise many Americans is that there aren’t always strong distinctions between these types. Indeed, most civic space is hybrid to some extent, and there are many fine examples of civic spaces intentionally designed to serve double- or triple-duty. These hybrid spaces are often more successful than single-use spaces because they support a variety of simultaneous activities, or have varying activities at different times of day, or on different days of the week—as Madison’s Capitol Square attests.
How to do a farmers’ market
Let’s take the specific example of the Dane County Farmers’ Market. On Saturdays during the spring, summer, and fall, the market is arrayed around Madison’s Capitol Square.
This is not a coincidence. Capitol Square is the natural location for this kind of event; it’s the physical and psychological center of the city and region. It is a beautiful public space, with the Wisconsin Capitol building at the center of a large, tree-lined square, and dignified downtown buildings containing shops, restaurants, and offices framing the edges.
Of course, this design is also no accident. Most great places are the product of intention. Like public squares in most older American cities, the space of Capitol Square was planned and designed precisely for both daily life and for special civic events like a public market. Many types of activities, from the mundane to the ceremonial, reinforce each other and activate the sidewalk. In addition to people on foot and bicycle, cars circulate around the square. But the outer roadway is relatively narrow, so cars move efficiently but slowly. They don’t threaten the safety or peace of people using the public space.
The whole effect is one of civility, vitality, and fun. From the very center of town, Madison is a city that cares about people. And people respond by using the streets and squares. There are shoppers, loungers, street performers, and people just passing through. Even on a day-to-day basis, there is more vitality here than in American cities many times the size. It’s a refreshing, ennobling experience.
The whole kit of parts
From a design perspective, the basic tools of planning employed to make a healthy public realm come from a sort-of “kit of parts.” While there is a lot of flexibility regarding design, certain basics are mandatory. In order to be successful, you need the whole basic kit of parts, which includes the following:
Sense of enclosure. A successful space that is defined emphatically by buildings and/or trees. A public space must have a sense of enclosure; it must feel like an “outdoor room.” Orderly rows of trees and buildings that line up along the sidewalk do the trick.
More space for people, less for cars. There must be a significant amount of space devoted to the pedestrian: wide sidewalks and, in case of a square, generous areas of orderly hardscape and greenscape. Roads and travel lanes should be narrowed to provide safe, efficient traffic flow.
Permeable ground floor. In the case of squares or retail streets, buildings must contain a mix of uses, not just office space or some other single use, with a “permeable” ground floor fronting the sidewalk, containing shops, restaurants, and cafés.
Connected and walkable. The space must be physically connected and in close proximity to the rest of the city or town, easily accessible by various modes of transport, but most importantly within walking distance of neighborhoods.
Here in Buffalo, the weekly Elmwood-Bidwell Farmers’ Market is a very successful event, and has been a wonderful, natural addition to its neighborhood. Like so many other such markets across the nation, the Elmwood-Bidwell Market has become not just a forum for local agriculture, but for local culture as well. The market not only fulfills its basic economic function, but is also a place to socialize, to engage in those daily communal acts that create an authentic community.
Unfortunately, the Elmwood Village never really had a market square, so the only logical place to put it was at the only true civic space in the neighborhood: the intersection of Elmwood Avenue and Bidwell Parkway. In the future, the community might do well to consider creating a proper plaza. If this happens, it probably won’t be at its current location, where there are strict protections for the historic Olmsted-designed parkway. Luckily though, there are parking lots and other empty parcels along Elmwood that could be converted into a beautiful, functional market plaza. It would be wise to identify and reserve one or two of these sites before they are privately developed. This would provide a much-needed type of public space, adding even more value to an already vibrant neighborhood.
Unfortunately, Buffalo’s Elmwood Village never really had a market square, so the only logical place to put it was at the only true civic space in the neighborhood: the intersection of Elmwood Avenue and Bidwell Parkway. In the future, the community might do well to consider creating a proper plaza. If this happens, it probably won’t be at its current location, where there are strict protections for the historic Olmsted-designed parkway. Luckily though, there are a few parking lots and other empty parcels along Elmwood that could be converted into a beautiful, functional market plaza. It would be wise to identify and reserve one or two of these sites before they are privately developed. As local agriculture makes its way back into all of our lives, this would provide a much-needed type of public space, adding even more value to an already vibrant neighborhood.
A final note on one of Buffalo’s most important, visible, and abused public spaces: Niagara Square. The square is the center of Joseph Ellicott’s radial street plan for Buffalo, and the proverbial heart of the region—much like Madison’s Capitol Square. Over the years, however, Niagara Square has become less and less people-friendly, as intrusions were made to accommodate the automobile. The roadway is far too wide, and fast-moving cars are a dominating, threatening presence. The square feels inaccessible and disconnected from the city around it.
Serving as Buffalo’s civic “front yard,” NIagara Square should be one of the city’s most beautiful and welcoming public spaces. The list of design problems might be long, but it’s a pretty easy prescription to start civilizing the square: narrow the roadway, widen the sidewalks, add pedestrian islands and well-marked crosswalks, add curbside parking (or even angled parking), change the asphalt to brick, add rows of trees (and use proper species of tree), and replace the highway-style “cobra” lights with lanterns. That’s a tall order, but the good news is that the work can be done incrementally, and any one of those changes will make the place noticeably better, adding real value.
The value of public space
In the end, perhaps the best test of the design of public space is how many people naturally go there even when a festival or other special event isn’t going on. Great public spaces are great not just due to their utility, but because people enjoy just being there. They’re spiritually rewarding. Also, because they are a physical part of the daily lives of citizens, great public spaces help to give a neighborhood that intangible but palpable “sense of place.” Going to the grocery, post office, or pharmacy may be a mundane chore, but a properly assembled public realm can dignify the trip, and help connect you physically and psychologically to your community.
Well-designed public spaces raise the value of the whole neighborhood, and in aggregate, the whole city—including everyone’s property values. These days, that’s a message most Americans would love to hear.