As the 2012 holiday season drew near, Fritz Haemmerle, mayor of the small town of Hailey, Idaho, was looking for a way to host a community-wide celebration. He turned to Community Development Director Micah Austin to cook up a plan to provide local residents a central gathering place in the heart of the city — but where proved difficult to nail down.

Soon, they settled on establishing the gathering place not in a public park or facility, as in other towns, but in the city streets themselves.

Staff placed temporary barriers on Croy Street to create a small public square in Hailey, ID.

Micah Austin
Staff placed temporary barriers on Croy Street to create a small public square in Hailey, ID.

Armed with a modest budget and donations from local businesses, Austin helped cordon off a section of Croy Street, right outside City Hall and the local library. With traffic diverted, city staff filled the space with a towering Christmas tree, covered wagon, a booth manned by Santa Claus and an elf and, to help beat the frosty weather, a fire pit powered by a massive propane tank. In essence, city planning staff created a new public plaza in the public right-of-way.

“Every town needs a central gathering place,” Austin told attendees to this year’s conference of the Idaho chapter of the American Planning Association.

For Hailey, that space sprang up with just a little elbow grease. At the Hotel on the Falls in Idaho Falls, Austin regaled planners and public officials from across the state with the logistics and implementation of his town’s holiday square, and the tools necessary to do the same in their communities.

While the holiday square might sound like a simple excuse to host a party in the streets, the city of Hailey’s concept —and its resulting success — is just one example of the so-called “pop up cities” phenomenon. Briefly, this concept empowers residents to look differently at their built environment.

In Cleveland, Ohio, visitors to “The Hipp Deck” became unwitting urbanists at an event organized by the Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative, held on the top floor of a downtown parking garage. In New York’s Bryant Park, guerilla diners went haute couture in Diner En Blanc, an elegant dinner party which attracted thousands of guests.

A town’s gathering place shouldn’t be a mystery, Austin told planners at the Idaho APA conference. When asked where the community comes together, citizens should provide the same answer — in the City of Boise, many would name the Grove Plaza as the town’s focal point.

The success of the holiday square spoke for itself. On the busiest days, the square attracted hundreds of residents, (the population of Hailey is approximately 8,000 people.)

Residents of Hailey, ID gather in the "Holiday Square", a temporary urban space created by city officials.

Micah Austin
Residents of Hailey, Idaho gather in the “Holiday Square,” a temporary urban space created by city officials.

Every Saturday from mid-November through early January, Austin would light the massive fire pit outside City Hall, offering passersby the chance to warm up, take a seat on the bench or just to gather. Area groups, including the Hailey Chamber of Commerce and the South Valley Merchants Alliance, helped to activate the space with raffles, activities and events. A regular holiday bazaar offered local vendors a chance to sell gifts and food items  and children a chance to sit on Santa’s lap. Community groups utilized the space for choir and band practice. The space was also a place for the community to mourn, Austin said. In the wake of the December mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, town residents arranged a community vigil to honor those killed.

City officials plan to bring back the pop up concept during this year’s holiday season — however, it will take place on private property, rather than in the street.

Idaho APA is the Idaho chapter of the American Planning Association, the national non-profit representing city and regional planners across the country. Learn more about the APA via their website, planning.org.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.

  • boisecitizen

    Love this idea, let’s hear it for creative elected officials and city staff! I’ve visited many small towns in Idaho and the first thing I ask folks I meet on the street is “where is your downtown?” Projects like this remind me that public space can be organic or intentional. Great job, Micah!