By Tara Smith, HKS Communications Coordinator
Kennett Square has a long history of staying true to its character while evolving to embrace new ideas and innovations. The community will rebuild on this strong foundation in what will probably be a gradually diminishing aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. While there’s a lot of uncertainty about what the stages of “the new normal” might look like, the one thing that’s certain is that Kennett Square has the resources to rise to meet the challenges ahead.
The best place to start, says Tara Dugan, owner of worKS Kennett Square, is where the town’s renaissance began just about a decade ago—with the restaurants. “The restaurants are the heart of Kennett Square,” she says, “and as we start over, they will bring us back.” In a time when cities like New York and Seattle and even neighbors like West Chester are taking steps to close many miles of streets for recreation and outdoor dining, Dugan says, “We need to take Historic Kennett Square’s Third Thursday model and amplify it—scaling back the number of reservations and scaling way up in frequency. State Street is the heart of Kennett Square—it’s our place, and we need to keep our minds wide open and decide what we want it to look like this summer. From an optics standpoint, consumers are much more apt to want to come out where there’s fresh air, sunshine, fewer tractor trailers—and plenty of space.”
One of Dugan’s own creative pivots in response to the limitations for retail businesses will be to re-open worKS, a collective of over two dozen local artisans and purveyors at the corner of South Walnut and Birch Streets, as a drive-through. Dugan laughs as she explains the genesis of the idea. She was walking on the trail towards the back of the transformed 1950s-era garage that houses worKS and noticed how much its shape resembled a Burger King. “And I thought—we could do this. We have the space and parking, and we could put out a menu, bring out products on carts and trays to show customers, do contactless payment. It’s a brand-new day, we’ve hit bottom and wiped the slate clean—and we’re really excited for this weird pivot.
These unprecedented times offer unprecedented opportunities to reimagine our spaces in other ways, too. “When it’s safe for us to begin to interact outside the virtual world of Zoom, it’s going to be more important than ever for people to have places to go that, by their very design, make it both safe and enjoyable to be together,” says Historic Kennett Square Executive Director Bo Wright. “Strategically placed projects like parklets, which are essentially tiny and temporary pocket parks in the confines of a parking space, as well as benches, fun and whimsical crosswalks, and even semi-permanent sidewalk art measuring out safe distances will help to reinstate Kennett Square as a destination for residents as well as visitors.”
“We don’t have a central square where people can gather—like a village green or a Mexican placita,” says Wright, “but that’s where strategic creative placemaking comes in. When State Street is closed to traffic, for instance, there are endless possible configurations for fun and unique seating arrangements, recreating that kind of ambiance but with appropriate distancing.”
Creative placemaking projects across the country often fill practical needs—providing seating, for instance—but many also offer opportunities for interaction and engagement and help to build a sense of community and place. Projects can be as elaborate as an outdoor movie theater powered by stationary bikes, larger-than-life instruments or games for people to play, and locally themed and intriguing sculptures and light installations—or they can be as simple as artwork that makes people smile. The first parklet in Dublin, Ireland, for example, involved two angled planters separating traffic from benches made by laying planks over kegs.
The sky is the limit when it comes to ideas for creative placemaking, and one of the freeing aspects of the approach is that these projects are temporary and low cost. If something doesn’t work, it can be easily adjusted or taken down. These kinds of projects also provide invaluable data on usage and interaction that can be used to plan and hone other projects more effectively.
Chris Thompson has been hard at work since the beginning of the shutdown reimagining the comeback of Philter Coffee 2.0. When it’s safe to reopen, he says, “benches would give people a place to drink coffee and enjoy a breakfast sandwich and even chat with someone at a safe distance.” In Kennett Square there’s plenty of empirical evidence around people gravitating to benches such as those in Sycamore Alley and outside Mrs. Robinson’s Tea Shop and La Michoacana Homemade Ice Cream. People see spaces with benches as welcoming, inviting them to slow down and linger.
Parklets could offer bench seating with planters to add beauty to the streetscape as well as natural physical distancing markers. Parklets and other creative projects can also connect different areas of a city or town. In Covington, Kentucky, for example, interactive parklets outside businesses were installed several years ago not only draw people to explore the city but also connect two areas separated by a walkable distance similar to those between State Street and Birch Street and State Street and Cannery Row.
Creative placemaking projects can also promote understanding and bring people from diverse backgrounds together by building relationships and integrating groups within the community. Other communities have found that these kinds of project can increase access for everyone—across all generations, backgrounds, and income levels—to engage with the arts in addition to supporting local artists including painters, sculptors, musicians, writers, and performers.
Building on some of their other initiatives including the attractive and Kennett-themed bike racks, Bike Kennett is also helping local leaders to think creatively about how to give people more room to walk and bike. “Bike Kennett is working to promote bicycling both for transportation and for fun and exercise. We’re also advocating for trails, sidewalks and bike lanes to enable safe travel for all,” says Bike Kennett chair Josie Marsh.
All of these ideas solve a practical need in this time as they encourage social distancing, but they have the added benefit of creating a more inviting and human-centered place. “I’ve seen dozens of communities across the country be revitalized as citizens work together to bring creative placemaking projects to life,” says Wright. “At HKS our vision is to see Kennett Square become an inclusive and beautiful community where everyone can belong and prosper, and these kinds of projects can play a key role in making that vision a reality. We have so many creative and talented people here, the challenge in Kennett is not a lack of ideas but rather connecting and coordinating individuals, municipal leaders, and supportive community organizations to bring some of these ideas to life. HKS is looking forward to continuing to collaborate with community partners as we explore some of these projects. We have a unique opportunity to use this time to experiment with different ideas for the built environment and bring imagination off the sidelines to create a truly special place.”
To read more about some of the thinking behind creative placemaking and to see examples of projects that individuals can engage in, click here.