In the TV show Girlmore Girls, the town square is the heart of the fictional city of Stars Hollow. I watched the whole series again in preparation for the release of the reunion season. What I noticed is the town square in the show functioned like the town squares of early American cities before cars took over and pushed everyone into the suburbs. What is so unique about the town square in Stars Hollow is that it brought the community together, it was the hub of spontaneous meetings, was surrounded by shops, restaurants and residential units, and was designed for pedestrians, not cars.
Many town squares do a great job of bringing people in through festivals and events. Some so much so that the only time anyone uses the space is if there is something going on. In Gilmore Girls, the town square is more than a place for events, but a space for the community to come together and work towards a common goal. In one episode, the town hosted an all night knit-a-thon to raise money to save the bridge. More communities could use this idea of hosting events that not only bring people in, but get them talking with one another and working towards solving a problem.
The town square of Stars Hollow is well known for the spontaneous meetings of neighbors and friends. Because of its location, characters in the show are constantly walking through the space to get to their destination. The location of shops and homes requires many to pass through on their daily commutes to and from work. The main characters often find themselves talking with one another or saying hello as they hurry through. This kind of engagement is lacking from many cities. No one says hello as they pass by. Even when in a public space, people tend to keep to themselves and go about their business.
Key to creating the spontaneous meetings that occur in the show are the mix of shops, restaurants, and residential units surrounding the town square. There is an antique shop, diner, movie theater, church, and grocery store all across the low traffic street. It is easy to see why the characters passed through it so often when it was short walk to pick up dinner, grab a few groceries, or run a last minute errand. Many of the businesses had residential units on the second floor providing activity in the area at all times of day. The neighborhoods were just a a block or two off the main street. A successful town square would mimic this mix of uses and residential density. The piazza's of Italy are known for their diversity of surrounding businesses and housing and are some of the more interesting spaces to be in.
One of the episodes involved the installation of the towns first traffic light to allow people to cross the street to the town square safely. The premise of the episode was the absurdity of needing the stop light because cars moved so slowly and infrequently through the area. The ideal city would be designed in a similar fashion, so that pedestrians have the right of way, not the vehicle. In almost every episode the main characters casually walking across the street from the shops to the square without any issue, rarely any cars to be seen. One city that is making this a reality is Barcelona. For years they have been developing a Superblock program which closes the core streets to traffic and directs all major vehicular movement around the periphery of the nine block grid system. In a way, they are moving towards the environment that was designed in Stars Hollow, but on a larger scale.
While Stars Hollow may seem to be the idealistic town square, I recognize that it can be so because it is a fictional place. Real town squares are not perfect nor are the cities they are in. But that does not mean that we cannot draw some parallels between the town square of the show and those in real life. We can learn a few things from this little town to improve our real town squares for everyone.