Public Space Is For People

Written by: Brady Drake

Photo by FMCVB

We’re staring down the business end of a summer of canceled togetherness. The state and county fairs, concert festivals, even rummage sales look to be taking a hit. For now, we aren’t gathering in large crowds to experience art and music, to support our makers and crafters, or to cheer on our favorite teams. But all is certainly not lost.

Since the dawn of cities, people have set aside places for the community to gather, not always for an organized purpose, rather just a place to exist – together. 

We see community plazas springing up throughout the Fargo-Moorhead region and excitement is building as very visible work begins on the downtown Fargo plaza space on Broadway. Inspired by Main Street Square in Rapid City, South Dakota, the plaza will be heavily programmed by Fargo Park District and includes a band shell for outdoor live performances, interactive water features for kids (and, adults, of course), and will double as a groomed ice skating rink in the winter.

Each of our region’s new open-air public spaces has its own personality, reflective of the community building it, and promising a wide variety of events for all interests and ages.

We are also seeing a resurgence of planting community in the spaces in between. 

Photo by Downtown Fargo BID

Last summer, the City of Fargo and the downtown Fargo Business Improvement District (BID) created a way to dedicate part of the planting bed along Broadway as a lovely place to sit. A few tables and chairs, planter boxes built by the Vocational Training Center, a bit of turf, and a sprinkle of mulch later, and we have a parklet oasis in the middle of downtown Fargo’s shopping and entertainment district.

Fargo took a bigger step last year in turning the space between city hall and the Fargo Public Library into a verdant refuge of walking paths and resting benches. The refurbished Sod Buster sculpture serves as a public art centerpiece surrounded by native prairie grasses. This redesigned city plaza invites you to stroll through or find your perfect spot to sit and be part of the city.

For years, we’ve seen privately owned surface parking lots in downtown transformed into temporary mini town-squares. Neighbors have joined forces to fill these spaces with the Red River Market, the Folkways Night Bazaar, outdoor concerts, food trucks, and more. Fargo has proven that any open space can become an irresistible place to spend time with friends and family.

Why not more?

As a prolonged pandemic threatens our ability to keep our congregational way of life and our small businesses viable, why not turn the lessons we’ve learned through placemaking on private property loose on the public realm? What potential do our streets, sidewalks, boulevards, and alleys have if we turn them in to truly shared spaces?

It’s happening across the nation and across the world. As indoor commerce is severely limited by slashed capacities, cities are turning streets into car-free zones, opening them to people as public spaces for people to enjoy while allowing for social distancing. In this unusual time, walkability is more than just a transportation choice, it’s necessary for physical wellbeing. It most certainly should be accessible to every resident.

Outdoor dining districts are popping up in creative ways. Sidewalk shopping is having a new heyday. On a Sunday afternoon in May, people were #feelinfly when Fly Fitness moved its stationary bikes outdoors into an alley to boost capacity while following social distancing rules. If you happened to catch the video on @FargoFeelsFly on Facebook, it was clear that while they stayed apart, those cyclers definitely felt pulled together.

For a couple of Sundays of every summer, Great Rides, a local non-profit dedicated to building health by encouraging the use of bicycles, closes blocks of streets downtown to cars, and opens them to all other forms of transportation and fun. A family bike ride is an entirely new experience when the worry of car traffic is removed. Imagine if we could do it every Sunday?

While many of these examples are taking place in downtown Fargo, you can likely think of a good-sized parking lot or the perfect section of street near you. What would make sense for your neighborhood and what could you do to help make it happen?

While a virus has forced us to take up more space per person, let’s allow people in more spaces. Perhaps the new environment we create will be so special we won’t want to let go of it, even when we’re back to socializing with no thought of distancing.

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Brady is the Editorial Director at Spotlight Media in Fargo, ND.