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Learning from fairs. How can Christmas towns help fix downtowns?

22 of December '22

We probably need a year-round Christmas. That's the only time the crowds draw to downtowns even from remote areas. Christmas markets are a magnet. It is known that this is a temporary space, somewhat childish, even indulgent, but it is still worth studying the sources of its successes to use them in the daily decoration of the city.

This has already been the case for about a decade. November comes to an end and city centers, wilting for much of the year, fill with crowds. The reason: Christmas markets, or in fact—for several years now—professionally arranged towns. Organized with increasing flair and more efficiently arranged, often by German teams who have eaten their teeth on the Weihnachtsmarkt popular across the Oder. The crowds were not deterred this year even by prices; the inner child attracted by the festive atmosphere is sometimes immune to inflation (as long as the outer adult has anything in his wallet).

Jarmark świąteczny, Poznań 2022 r.

Christmas market, Poznań 2022.—„Poznań Bethlehem” at Freedom Square

photo: Jakub Głaz

However, it's probably not only the Christmas atmosphere that matters here. After all, Christmas markets are arranged in such a way that they resemble a cozy small town, or an old neighborhood of a larger city, the kind of places you usually want to be in. Of course, all in a more flashy, condensed version falling into pure kitsch in places.

However, it's silly to accuse the fair of being jarring. On the other hand, it is not foolish to learn from its successes. For I guess it is an achievement to gather crowds outdoors on a frosty evening with bad hot wine and sausages for nothing. After such a picture, the translations of people who for years have contrasted the traditional shopping street with sterile shopping malls with their independence from the weather and imperfections of the real city begin to sound false.

Las Jarmarkas?

After all, no matter how we judge their aesthetics, fairs use several effective ways to shape an attractive urban space. Shopping centers, yes, do the same, but—they create an artificial world opposed to the city. Fairs enter into a certain symbiosis with it. Therefore, it is worth keeping in the back of one's mind the patents they use, and after the festive season, when the empty spaces left by the fairs will look sadder than usual, revealing their many imperfections.

Jarmark świąteczny, Poznań 2022 r.

Christmas market, Poznań 2022.—The faulty pavement of the new PWK square, which will become visible when the fair is removed

photo: Jakub Głaz

It's not foolish, then, to analyze the success of the fairs in order to more efficiently save depopulating downtowns from which commerce, jobs and gastronomy are fleeing. Here I'll stipulate right away: it's not about copying forms or shapes, but the general principles governing Christmas towns.

Learning from the fairs? It's been done before, you'll say, recalling Venturi and Co.'s notable work "Learning from Las Vegas." But, for one thing, a Christmas market is nevertheless a more civilized version of a theme park. It appeals to the ordinary urban fabric rather than bombastic buildings or styles. Second, regardless of what the postmodernists later treated us to, Venturi and company had some pertinent insights that disappeared in the shadow of the reference to the circus on steroids that is Las Vegas.

the street rules!

It's time to get specific. What use can a manager of a public space get out of a fair? Let's start with scale and proportion. In well decorated Christmas towns, the alleys are cozy, but nevertheless not too narrow, allowing even large groups of people to pass each other. Every dozen meters or so: a substitute for a square or plaza with tables for drinking and eating standing up—giving breath and variety. The stalls, on the other hand, are neither squat stalls, nor do they pop up and obscure landmarks in the form of two-story taverns, carousels or decorative turrets. And thanks to these banal dominants, the user feels more secure and the space is easier to tame.

Jarmark świąteczny, Poznań 2022 r.

Christmas market, Poznań 2022.—„Poznań Bethlehem” at Freedom Square, view towards the Old Town

photo: Jakub Głaz

The fact that the friendly character of the whole thing is due to the lack of cars should be mentioned just for the sake of order. What lesson to learn from here? To more consistently free downtown streets from cars and shape the cross-section of urban passages accordingly, in accordance with the principle of user experience. It is known that houses will not be moved, but what are small architecture and greenery for? Here it will narrow, there it will optically widen, and immediately it will be better.

The fairs also teach the importance of an uninterrupted commercial and retail frontage—with no breakouts in the form of vacant lots and clapped-out storefronts. A large accumulation of attractions in a relatively small stretch is convenient for the user and prevents boredom. Not this stall, then another. Not French fries, it's pork neck. Shopping streets used to work similarly in Poland and—they still work in neighboring countries whose cities have not surrendered to shopping malls. How to get back to that state? It takes very hard work, but you can see that it's worth it, because a "normal" street works. Frost, snow, rain will not so easily scare you out of a pleasant space rich in diverse attractions.

exhibition come back!

Another thing: materials. However, not concrete and steel, but wood is in high demand. Again: the idea is not to suddenly encircle the entire downtown with planks, but to take into account people's habits. So: wooden bench seats, fences, details—all worth considering, of course, in reasonable quantities, because, after all, a city is not a forest lodge.

Jarmark świąteczny, Poznań 2022 r.

Christmas market, Poznań 2022.—„Poznań Bethlehem” at Freedom Square against the background of the development

photo: Jakub Głaz

Wood is also a good material for creating display cases. And here is another point: in Poland the culture of storefronts—still present in many European cities and in creative, often humorous forms—has died. In our country, even existing stores don't bother to provide passersby with an aesthetic experience. It's different at fairs, and this also attracts people who stop to watch the attractively presented goods. After all, storefronts, which change frequently, can also serve as a kind of outdoor gallery, a magnet for downtown. Working storefronts are also a way to provide friendly street lighting.

get out of the Middle Ages

This brings us to the last point: lights. At fairs—except for the colorful elements—the illumination is intimate, of warm white color, the spotlights are located low or on the side and do not flood the whole area with light. And this is also the direction in which the managers of urban space should go. I am deliberately pointing the finger at them, and not at architects, because the latter have little influence on systemic solutions for street space. In the same way, by the way, they are not usually engaged to arrange Christmas markets (by the way, I wonder how they would imagine such a space and what users would say about their design).

jarmark świateczny poznań       jarmark świąteczny plac kolegiacki

Christmas markets, Poznań 2022.—The use of color in the „Poznań Bethlehem” at Liberty Square; white intimate lighting at Kolegiacki Square

photo: Jakub Głaz

For now, however, we have a situation like centuries ago, when residents from all over the area would flock to the annual fair (depending on the city—at different times of the year). Today, too, strings of cars from the communities to which residents of the big cities have moved out are drawn to the festively fueled center. Not infrequently, this is probably their only contact in the year with the center of, let's call it, the metropolis. Careful observation of their expectations and behavior during the Christmas markets will be useful in creating such a downtown space that will attract all year round.

Jakub Głaz

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