Cars were conspicuously absent from the 500 of block Baker Street on Sunday.
The space was transformed into an experimental pop-up town square, a one-afternoon creation orchestrated by the group Nelson Sunday Town Square Organizing Committee.
This event had no specific agenda and no street vendors, but it was alive with games, conversations, and music.
“This is great,” said Nelson resident Christine Lazenby. “I brought my two children, my husband, my in-laws, and we are sitting around watching the kids paint and hula hoop. It’s a nice family-friendly event. It is nice that it is so small, in one block, so I can see the children, and they are running around and reunited with friends. It’s lovely and I hope they do it every season.”
That’s the kind of response organizer George Chandler was hoping for.
“People are doing art or playing games,” he said, “and sometimes just having conversations, and that is what we wanted, was to get a sense of what would you do if you had a town square.”
A group of adults and kids played a suspenseful game of Jenga, with the tower standing on the street’s centre line. After the tower collapsed, one of the players, Avi Phillips, said the event allowed him to speak in a more relaxed way to the people he met, more than if they had met on the sidewalk, each headed hurriedly to a destination.
“There is a lot of room,” he said, “and I like that it is not congested with tents and people selling things. It’s an opportunity for people to walk around and interact, and I think that’s great.”
Chandler said the way this town square came together is an example of a process urban planners refer to as rapid implementation.
“Rather than talking about it in theory, or hiring somebody to draw you a structural model of something, you just do it. This is a popup square and you can ask people, ‘What do you think about this? If you like it, why do you like it? Let’s talk about it.’ It is a chance to see if something could work.”
The Nelson Sunday Town Square Organizing Committee is not necessarily suggesting that this be a permanent town square, he said.
“We are just popping one up here to have a conversation about town squares and how we use our downtown.”
Cars were noticeably absent in the square.
“We don’t even notice how car-dominated our world is,” said Anneke Rosch, “and it is really interesting to be able to see what it would be like without. I don’t know if it would be like this all the time, but I think it is interesting to be proactive about inviting people to public space (to) create their own environment where they can share things with other people.”
Chandler said it was impossible to count how many people attended, as there were people arriving and leaving throughout the six-hour event. He said there were about 80 people there at any given time.
A signboard at the event provided photos and text about successful downtown pedestrian zones in Vernon, Kelowna, Canmore, Alta., and Banff, Alta.
Downtown closures began in Kelowna and Vernon as a way of restoring foot traffic to assist local businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Kelowna started closing four blocks of Bernard Street in its downtown core in 2020. That’s since been changed to two blocks from May 19 to Sept. 4, but Downtown Kelowna Association (DKA) executive director Mark Burley says he expects the annual Meet Me On Bernard event to be permanent because it has support from businesses.
In Vernon, one block of 30th Avenue (a thoroughfare similar in character and layout to Baker Street) has been closed annually since 2021 from July to the end of August.
In both cities, organizers have found that it is not enough just to restrict cars. There have to be organized activities and attractions on the street, as there were in Nelson on Sunday.
With files from editor-reporter Tyler Harper.