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Published by the Society in the Ripon Gazette, 21st August 2009
What can we learn from our travels about how Ripon could use its Market Square, asks David Winpenny, Co-Chairman of Ripon Civic Society.

How do different places use their town squares? And what lessons can Ripon learn from them? Of course, everywhere is different, and what works in once place may very well not work elsewhere. But visits to other countries can often suggest pointers to ways we might be able to use Ripon’s historic square.

One obvious point to make is that a square does not have to be used for the same thing all the time. The square in the northern Icelandic town of Akureyri – which has almost exactly the same population as Ripon – finds a variety of different uses. One week, for example, it held a collection of large prints of old photographs of the town – the following Bank Holiday weekend part of the square was laid with turf and flowerbeds and local people were encouraged to picnic there in the heat – it reached a record 24.9 in July this year! Like Ripon’s Market Square, traffic flows around it, but it is well laid out, with differences in road structure and well-designed, integrated benches forming pleasant places to sit.

Or what about the square in the small city of Cesky Krumlov – a World Heritage Site with a population less than 15,000 – in the south of the Czech Republic? Cars are allowed in the square, but only for local deliveries or for residents. Otherwise, despite the difficulties of a medieval town plan, the authorities have found a way of diverting the traffic from the historic core, leaving the square largely peaceful and a pleasure to walk around. Think, too, of the many squares in Rome – yes, some are blighted by rushing, hooting traffic, but many are traffic-free. Visitors and locals can wander at will and enjoy the sights and sounds, especially the fountains, like the one outside the Pantheon. And in Seville the square outside the cathedral has been freed from traffic and re-paved, creating an attractive and calming space to sit in the shade of orange trees.

Nearer to home, consider the recently-created Paternoster Square near St Paul’s Cathedral, home to Temple Bar. This is surrounded by tall buildings, but, with its off-centre column and carefully-designed paving, it is always buzzing with life and events. And the regeneration of Castleford’s Carlton Square will be on Channel 4 very soon – its success remains to be seen.

So what can we learn from these, admittedly randomly-selected, places, and from others that are dotted around Europe and the world? Perhaps the question to ask is, rather, what would visitors from these places make of Ripon Market Square? It is unlikely that they would be impressed. They would see that the Square itself is magnificent, of course, and that with the obelisk we have the sort of central feature that many would envy. But what have we done with it? Allowed it be become a traffic island, with, despite the bypass, a constant stream of traffic around three sides of it. Worse, there are cars all over it, adding nothing to its visual appeal and making it dangerous for pedestrians. And some of the buildings around leave much to be desired in their looks, both in terms of maintenance and of some appalling shop fronts. The visitor may shake their heads, regretting that so fine an asset has been so badly treated.

It is time that the planners and everyone involved with improving the city cut the Gordian Knot of inaction over the Market Square and make a really determined effort to improve it. Get rid of the traffic – at least for some of the day – and return the Square to the pedestrian. Shops and cafes would benefit, visitors would be inclined to linger, and the people of Ripon could once again be proud. And – here’s an idea – why not lay out the Square as a huge sundial (it would surely be the biggest in England, if not further afield) with the obelisk casting the shadow to tell the time. Now that really would be an enterprising use of one of Ripon’s greatest assets.

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