Share-It Square

Something is wrong with too many places in America today. Mark Lakeman

Where are the public squares in this country like the piazzas in Italy where people gather to chat with their friends or anyone else who happens by? I recall a suburban square, one like countless others in this country, that was recently built on the main street in a town outside of San Francisco. I have driven by that square many times and not once have I seen anyone there or even anyone approaching the place.

I admire the square, the trees and benches that have been abundantly distributed throughout. I hope that it will eventually become a popular gathering place. But in all honesty, I have no reason to believe it will, as long as you have strap yourself in your three-ton utility vehicle every time you want to go there.

Think of the even more numerous intersections in this country where only automobiles gather to wait for the signal to change. What is an Italian piazza anyway but an intersection where cross streets come together? What might be done to create a more public setting in the lonely intersections of this country?

I first read about how to reinvent the intersection in an interview with Steven Johnson discussing his new book, Future Perfect, in which he discusses once again the importance of peer networks in developing new ideas. He describes a fellow in Portland, Oregon who realized that “throughout human history, cross streets have been places where civic culture happens.”

So he got together with people in his neighborhood to start sprucing up the intersection, now known as Share-It Square after the intersection streets, SE 9th and Sherrett Streets. They built a small lending library, a food stand, 24 hour solar powered tea station, a bulletin board and placed paintings here and there. The idea caught on. Soon there was another one in Portland known as Sunnyside Piazza and then several others, at last count over 20.

After Share-It Square had been developed, the organizers surveyed their individuals in the immediate area and found that an overwhelming majority felt that crime had decreased, traffic had slowed, and communication between neighbors had improved ((85% on each of these measures).

The Sunnyside Piazza intersection is said to attract people throughout the day. Neighbors say they intentionally detour through the intersection to and from the nearby streets, perhaps to visit the kiosk, run into friends, or simply participate in whatever is going on there.

What did it take to change a neighborhood intersection into a public square? One person, who apparently realized on a trip to Italy that cross streets have historically been places where people gather. Initially, the civic officials in Portland resisted his idea, but eventually relented, then neighbors joined together to transform the intersection, and once Share-It-Square became so successful, the concept spread rapidly, as these things do these days.

Imagine what might happen if this idea spread throughout a number of the many empty intersections in this country. Instead of being a boring old cross streets where only cars drive through, they became neighborhood-gathering places. Perhaps, a few might become what they are in Florence and almost any other city in Italy.

“Now at Florence, when the air is red with the summer sunset and the campaniles begin to sound vespers and the day’s work is done, everyone collects in the piazzas. The steps of Santa Maria del Fiore swarm with men of every rank and every class; artisans, merchants, teachers, artists, doctors technicians, poets, scholars. A thousand minds, a thousand arguments; a lively intermingling of questions, problems, news of the latest happening, jokes; an inexhaustible play of language and thought, a vibrant curiosity; the changeable temper of a thousand spirits by whom every object of discussion is broken into an infinity of sense and significations—all of these spring into being, and then are spent. And this is the pleasure of the Florentine public.” Richard Goodwin The American Condition