Market Square In Winter 02
Published in the Stratford Gazette, 8 December 2011.
One of things that everyone “knows” about open spaces in Stratford is that in winter they’re not usable. Of course there are winter days when no one wants to be outside, but think of those unexpected and wonderful days that can happen in early December or early March, when we’re lured outdoors by sunshine and no wind and a touch of warmth in the air. I have a south-facing porch, where on such days I sit with a cup of tea, soaking up the sun.
Picture this, then. It’s a balmy day in early March – balmy compared to mid-winter weather. Close to the south side of City Hall there are clusters of chairs and benches, and some evergreens in pots. The snow has been cleared from the Market Square so that the pavement soaks up the sun and radiates some warmth, which is wafting your way on the light south-westerly breeze. You’ve picked up a cup of coffee at one of the cafés around the Square and are sitting with your back to the warm wall, basking. There’s no vehicle traffic in the Square now, so it’s quiet – you can have a conversation, or bring your kids and let them play. After a Stratford winter, that’s an attractive picture.
Jan Gehl, a Danish expert on how cities work, writes about the use of open spaces in winter. Of the characteristics which he discusses, Stratford already starts with several, such as the fact that the Market Square is not surrounded by tall buildings that create drafty wind-tunnels. He writes that in older Scandinavian cities low buildings allow the wind to pass over the roofs and the sun to warm the space between buildings. “In these cities it is as if the local climate has moved 1,000 km south, and vegetation therefore includes fig trees, grapevines and palm trees. ... The annual number of hours that can comfortably be spent outdoors is typically twice as great in these traditional built environments as in the region generally.”
The secret is to create microclimates, of which there might be several in the Square. The little scene showing you drinking your coffee in the sun-warmed lee of City Hall describes a microclimate. There are ways to achieve this.
As already suggested, clearing the snow would allow the sun to warm the pavement and therefore, if there’s not much wind, to warm the entire area, especially the sunny, sheltered nooks. Cleared pavement will encourage use of the Square – pedestrians will cross it, kids will hang out, customers will go to the shops and restaurants.
In the central area, moveable trees – evergreens in pots – would provide shelter. They would work with the large sycamore trees called for in the Plant Architect Inc. design. Moveable furniture would enable users to choose their microclimate.
Awnings and glass wind-screens can stretch the season for outdoor café tables. In Scandinavia some restaurants have heat-lamps suspended under the awnings; others provide cushions and blankets for people who want to sit outdoors on a sunny but chilly day.
When we chip away at winter by considering ways to take advantage of the “shoulder” seasons, we come down to perhaps two months when the Square is unlikely to be used very much as a place to sit. But even then there could be life and activity. Shops, restaurants, and other businesses around the Square will have people coming and going, including students from the nearby campus, perhaps loitering for a few minutes, stopping to chat. Two friends will perch on one of the clusters of chairs for a little visit. Pedestrians will cross the Square. Someone will walk a dog. There will be window-shoppers. People who work there will pop out to pick up a coffee. Before you know it, the Market Square will have a lived-in feel even on a chilly day.
As Jan Gehl writes: “People come where people are.” When Stratford people start thinking about the Square as a living space, they themselves will find ways to use and enjoy it.
Jan Gehl’s books include Life Between Buildings, New City Spaces, and New City Life. My quotations, and some of the suggestions, come from his latest book, Cities for People. He is based in Copenhagen, which has a large pedestrian precinct that is well used all the year round. His wife is a psychologist; they studied the human side of city design, “the borderland between sociology, psychology, architecture, and planning.” See http://en.wikipedia.org and go to “Jan Gehl”.
Brandis has lived in Stratford since 1996 and is a full-time writer. She is the author of a number of books - visit Marianne's website