Antioch New England students, staff, and Monadnock region residents have long recognized Keene, New Hampshire’s Central Square as a great place for musical performances and political rallies, as well as a showcase for pumpkins and ice carvings. But now the American Planning Association (APA) has made it official by recognizing the 200-year-old gathering spot as one of ten great public spaces in America.
Planner for the City of Keene, Mikaela Engert says the APA’s Great Places of America designation stresses the importance of public spaces within our built environment. “People need places to gather, socialize, and observe. Central Square provides that and it also provides a very strong sense of place for our community given its history and central location.”
The honor bestowed on Central Square is a nod to its layout, social activities, and unique qualities. The APA reviewing committee considered several criteria in selecting their top choices including multiple uses and users, natural features, local character, a sense of planning, and historical significance.
“What’s ironic about the planning of Central Square is that it was never part of a formal plan per se,” says Engert. “The whole design of the square and the streets around it sort of came together organically as uses for the land changed over time.”
Central Square was originally known as the Common and was the location of Keene’s meeting house. After the meeting house was removed in 1828, the site became “a dusty area, crossed by roads in every direction and without a single tree” reports Clifford C. Wilbur in his 1945 publication, The Story of Central Square.
The area was used as a parade ground for military reviews. In 1844 the idea of making the area a park-like square began to germinate with the suggestion from the Forest Tree Society for plantings and fencing. Storekeepers objected to the suggestion arguing that trees would obscure their signboards and interfere with the military reviews. But by 1851 the military reviews had stopped so beautification efforts were launched and were greeted favorably by the public.
Over the years, improvements have been made leading up to the present day Central Square that features a bandstand, fountain, benches, trees, seasonal plantings, and monuments. Today the square remains what it started out asâ€¦the heart of the city.
The nine other top public-space honorees are:
East Park, City of Charlevoix, MI
Virginia Beach Boardwalk, Virginia Beach, VA
The Squares of Savannah, Savannah, GA
The Grand Rounds, Minneapolis, MN
Queens Botanical Garden, Flushing, NY
Lincoln Park, Chicago, IL
New Haven Green, New Haven, CT
The Green, Dover, DE
Central Market, Lancaster, PA