We stumbled upon a Holiday parade Friday evening. I was back in Ohio visiting my mom over the weekend to give her a hand with some holiday decorating and household chores. After wrapping up our work for the day, we headed to Downtown Bellefontaine to get some dinner. It just so happened that this was the evening of their annual holiday parade.
Finding ourselves in the midst of the festive throngs had us both completely giddy. The streets were packed, kids were everywhere, and it appeared that the entire community had come out to celebrate this festive occasion. It felt magical and we both considered ourselves quite lucky to have had the chance to experience it.
A holiday parade is such a wonderful reminder of how this is all supposed to work. Small towns are meant to feel magical, they are meant to bring people together, and they are supposed to have a charm to them that makes residents fall in love. Instead of feeling this way one night of the year, our towns should feel this way all of the time.
See, the holiday parade teaches us something pretty important about our towns. There are lessons to be learned and myths to be busted.
1. During the holiday parade, the number of people in downtown Bellefontaine was likely 100 times greater than a typical Friday evening, yet no additional parking spaces were installed for the event. It would appear that every person that wanted to attend found a way to attend, even with no increase in parking spaces. Attendees walked, got rides, or they parked farther away, but they still came. This is because people will always find their way to an attraction. Parking has not and never will be a limiting factor for a downtown worth visiting.
2. People want to be together. Every person at the holiday parade had other options that evening, they still had a Netflix account, and they all could have more easily stayed home on the couch, but they didn’t. They didn’t stay home because they wanted to experience a sense of community. Residents wanted to have a chance to hang out and feel part of something bigger. Humans haven’t changed in this regard, we have simply made it very difficult for them to spend time with one another, but when provided with an opportunity, they jump at the chance.
Cars keep people away. When you remove automobiles from the street, people flood them. During the event, Main Street had been closed to cars and amazingly enough, it filled up with people. Our downtowns thrived when they were designed with people in mind. The few districts in this country that remain unconquered by the car claim the most visits and economic activity. Streets that are safe for pedestrians, fill up with pedestrians. When people feel their lives threatened by cars, they tend to stay away. People also tend to be very good for business, I for one, have never seen a car do any local shopping.
What struck me about the event wasn’t just how wonderful it felt to be a part of it, but how senseless it is to deprive people of this feeling on a regular basis. This is exactly what residents want, so why only give it to them once a year? It shouldn’t have to be a special occasion to feel like their community is a special place.
3. It’s not as if people don’t want to get together with other people. It’s not as if people only want to feel a part of their community in December. I don’t believe that locals only want to mingle in the street when it’s cold out. Why don’t we take some lessons from the holiday parade and apply them to the rest of the year?
I think there are some assumptions that can be made about the holiday parade night in Bellefontaine, Ohio. It was likely the best day for retail sales of the year. It was likely the best day for restaurant sales of the year. The level of civic pride was probably the highest of the year. The community’s sense of well-being was probably at its highest and the level of attachment people felt for their town was also likely at its highest.
Just by giving residents a chance to come out and be with one another in the street to celebrate, all of these tremendous things occurred. I am not suggesting a parade every evening of course, but perhaps shutting down the street more often is a good start. Or even better, severely limiting car access to the street. Give people a place to go and a place to be! Give the public a chance to hang out in public. As cities have handed over all the public space to cars, the humans no longer have a place to go to be with one another, yet they are desperate to do just that. So start clawing back space from the cars and give it back to the people.
The Holiday Parade is a special event, but maybe it shouldn’t be so special. Maybe it would make sense to design our towns around their best days instead of giving residents just one day a year to feel good about their place. If everyone loves mingling in the street and it’s great for business and provides emotional, social, and civic benefits, why not do it more often? Why not make this the norm instead of an annual event?
I couldn’t help but think of Bedford Falls when I was walking through Downtown Bellefontaine- the fictional town from It’s a Wonderful Life that we all love. Bedford Falls seems magical to us now as we have traded in Martini’s Bar for Applebee’s and Bailey’s Building and Loan for Bank of America, but while the town was certainly special, it was not unique. It likely felt like a holiday parade all the time.
Our towns should feel special all the time. All of our places should give us Bedford Falls vibes and there is no reason we can’t take the lessons from the Holiday Parade and apply them to our places year-round. Residents are showing us what they want, we must have the decency to simply listen to them.
Let people walk in the streets, push to keep stores open late, make downtown feel festive and pretty, and give people a chance to get together and experience a sense of community. Ditch the cars, ignore the parking and more than anything, let people have a little bit of fun together. Residents don’t want all that much, just a little bit of space to get together and hang out with one another, I don’t think that is too much to ask. City leaders, maybe this year you give your residents this one Christmas wish, give them a place to be together again.