Lois Fisher of Fisher Town Design is a successful and influential urban designer who creates town squares for a living (Northern California projects she has worked on include Central Petaluma, Windsor, Ukiah, and Sonoma Mountain Village in Rohnert Park). We sat down with her recently to get her expert opinion about how well the Daughtrey’s site would work as a town square for Castro Valley. After walking the Daughtrey’s site, then down Santa Maria, and into Castro Village, we circled back to Swiss Delices, which faces the site, to brainstorm over coffee and pastries.
Fisher’s reaction was enthusiastic, noting that the site is at a T intersection — the best place to locate a town square, according to studies. Fronting onto a public street also is a positive element of the site. Fisher explained that passersby should immediately know the square is for the public and not privately owned. She liked that Swiss Delices faces the Daughtrey’s site with full view of the space. She said “you want eyes on the plaza,” preferably from all sides.
Proximity to walkable “anchors “ (a post office, restaurant, or bank) is crucial, Fisher said, explaining that anchors create reliable foot traffic to and from the town square and help smaller Mom and Pop businesses thrive. She pointed out that the site is across from Citibank, down the street from the Castro Valley post office, and has several large restaurants nearby. She also observed that Castro Village has some walkable paths that function like streets and connect to the crosswalk to the south side of Castro Valley Boulevard. The site has the added advantage of being within walking distance of BART.
Design is crucial to making sure a town square is safe, vibrant, and used by a wide range of residents. Fisher recommends that the square have a clear central feature, such as a fountain, gazebo, or statue. Fisher explains that if the town square has a focal point, “triangulation, ” will happen — where two people begin to chat about a third activity, such as children playing in a gazebo. She also notes that successful town squares are simply designed and uncluttered. An uncluttered space can accommodate everything from a farmer’s market or a movie night, to a crafts fair or festival.
Even though simplicity is key to successful town square design, the space also should also have “outdoor rooms,” Fisher says. In other words, a town square is like a living room without a roof, in which the life of a town is lived. This feeling of life extends out to the surrounding area, inviting walkers, shoppers, and families, and stimulating commerce and community activities.
Fisher explains that putting a town square at the Daughtrey’s site is, in effect, a retrofit, which makes it all the more important that a plan is created thoughtfully and with as much input from the larger community as possible. Despite the challenges ahead, her enthusiasm is both infectious and grounded in reality. She has proven by example that smart development can happen and is happening in nearby communities.
We in Castro Valley can learn from their successes. What we shouldn’t do is lose this opportunity to make our community even more livable and vibrant.
Visit FisherTownDesign.com for useful links to other town plaza projects, information on smart development, related studies and websites.