Kennett Square, with its temporary street closures on Thursday evenings and weekends, is in good company. Cities and towns around the world are temporarily closing streets to vehicles—and opening them up for people—as one means of providing increased physical space for recreation, respite, and social distancing. By allowing outdoor dining and shopping, closed streets also enable restaurants and shops to increase the sales they need to stay afloat in these challenging times.
But as anyone who’s ever walked down the middle of a street that’s temporarily closed to traffic knows, something else happens as well—it’s curiously freeing when people begin to inhabit these spaces in new ways. Perhaps that’s why these kinds of pop-up public spaces inspire new levels of energy and, in a world starved for these experiences right now, a kind of optimism and connection—even from six feet away.
Placemaking entails precisely what the name implies— taking a space, and reimagining how to make it a place. Generally speaking, the goal of that repurposing is to promote human engagement in some form. Placemaking often incorporates repurposed materials and elements of whimsy or play—from a simple intervention and activation of space like drawing a hopscotch game on a sidewalk with chalk to a pedestrianized street or square filled with larger-than-life interactive art installations, a building reimagined for a new use, or a pop-up event such as Historic Kennett Square’s Third Thursdays. The Creamery, Braeloch Brewing, and West Branch Distillery on Birch Street are a few examples in Kennett, though there are many others as well. Both WorKS and the building that now houses Holly Peters and Kennett Brewing Company used to be garages.
At its heart, placemaking is not about the place so much as it is about the people. And in the age of COVID-19, creative placemakers are faced with new constraints to design places that, for example, have fewer touch surfaces and allow for safe distancing. The good news is that formal constraints often spark even greater creativity. Intentional and thoughtful design can address both safety concerns and the stir-crazy isolation many are experiencing after months of quarantine. Streetscapes around the world are being reshaped to cater to both body and soul with makeshift outdoor cafe areas, benches, plantings, and art.
While one block of State Street is closed on Thursday evenings this summer, the well-loved Third Thursday community events with live music, children’s activities, and more are not able to happen this summer. “We’re disappointed not to be able to offer Third Thursdays this year, but we can’t for many reasons, including the fact that the scale of these events doesn’t allow for social distancing,” says Historic Kennett Square Executive Director Bo Wright. “But closing the 100 block of East State Street enables the four great restaurants on that block to offer safely spaced outdoor dining. The closure of Apple Alley enables Kennett Brewing Company to do the same, and with the block of Elm Street that runs alongside La Michoacana Ice Cream closed to traffic, families are able to queue safely distanced and safe from traffic.”
While the 100 block of West State Street presents a different kind of challenge because of the various needs of the mix of businesses there, Wright says plans are underway for a creative placemaking intervention to benefit the cafes and restaurants on that block. “As in most places in the world right now, in Kennett Square we’re trying to balance economic recovery and caution. That’s difficult, but we know it can be done. Historic Kennett Square is also working on some signage that will help orient people, remind them of the health and safety precautions both businesses and customers need to follow right now, and point them to other businesses beyond the closed block, such as Square Pear Art Gallery.”
Placemaking, like anything that’s based in community, is primarily collaborative in nature. In addition to its economic and health impact, shared public space creates a sense of social cohesion, ownership, and identity. It’s the physical manifestation of the “we’ll all get through this together” sentiment. As such, it’s also important that placemaking initiatives are as inclusive as possible. “Throughout the pandemic, Historic Kennett Square has continued working with community partners and Borough and Township officials and has also created new relationships with the goal of helping our community through this,” says Wright. “We’re grateful for Mayor Matt Fetick, Borough Manager Joe Scalise, and others who understand the importance of helping businesses as well as guiding our citizens about how to return to public life in such an uncertain time. Recovery will happen in public spaces, and how we design and think about space is more important than ever right now.”