Milan’s downtown Tolan Square is a great example of tactical placemaking. Two summers ago, the city turned a piece of this street into a plaza with nothing more than a few heavy planters at each end and some picnic tables. For a budget of around $5,000, the community suddenly had a town square and events space—and one that could be undone quickly if the experiment turned out not to work.

A good space + a reason to be there = placemaking. (And a "coffee-off" is a great reason, in my opinion.) Photo from Milan Coffee Off.

A good space + a reason to be there = placemaking. (And a “coffee-off” is a great reason, in my opinion.) Photo from Milan Coffee Off.

The plaza hosts the farmers & artisans market, as well as events ranging from the Let’s Chill winter festival to the “Coffee Off,” Halloween movie screenings, and youth theater demonstrations.

After the first year, the city asked a local market research firm to evaluate the project. A survey of residents, business owners, and visitors found that the benefit of having the plaza outweighed the frustration of having the block closed to car traffic, as well as providing recommendations for how to improve on this existing level of approval. (For example, having more activities geared towards children would balance the frustration of parents who used to use this block to access the nearby elementary school.)

Tolan Square is a demonstration that placemaking projects don’t have to be grand and flashy—sometimes, smaller efforts can make a big impact on a place. It also points to the importance of programming public spaces: people value the space more than they mind the traffic inconvenience because of what happens there. As the evaluation found, people who participated in events at the plaza regularly were much more likely to state strong support for it. With the approach of conscious discussion, evaluation, and incremental change Milan is applying here, Tolan Square should continue to improve and contribute to downtown in years to come.

Building on success

One thing that stood out to me, both in the evaluation the city did and in my casual observation as a visitor stumbling onto the space, is that the business mix around Tolan Square may limit its impact on downtown. This is not an issue specific to Milan, by any stretch—many small downtowns struggle to create critical mass of storefront businesses that are predictably open in the evening and weekend hours when most retail activity occurs.

A street plaza can be created quickly an inexpensively: take one street and add a combination of barriers and seating to make clear that it's a space for people, not vehicles. Making it successful, though, requires programming activities in the short-term, and nurturing businesses that can mutually reinforce that activity in the long-term.

A street plaza can be created quickly and inexpensively: take one street and add a combination of barriers and seating to make clear that it’s a space for people, not vehicles. Making it successful, though, requires programming activities in the short-term, and nurturing businesses that can mutually reinforce that activity in the long-term.

As the evaluation noted, certain downtown businesses—those that were open evenings and weekends, and sold food and drink or retail shopping experiences—see significant benefit from the plaza. The evaluation report includes quotes from business owners:

“When the farmer’s market turnout is low, my sales are still double that of a typical Friday. But when the farmer’s market has a big turnout, my sales are triple.”

“On the best day of Winterfest, my sales were 15% greater than my previous best sales day in history!”

…but the evaluator also notes that “most downtown businesses are not positively affected” by events in the plaza, because they are office/service businesses that do not rely on (or generate) significant foot traffic, or because they are not open evenings and weekends, when events in the plaza typically occur.

The experience of the businesses that are successfully taking advantage of the plaza shows both the power of placemaking to support a healthy retail district, as well as an opportunity for new businesses to take advantage of the foot traffic generated by Tolan Square and its events—I look forward to coming back for some of these!