Parents who have visited Janesville’s new ARISE Town Square probably weren’t surprised to learn an 8-year-old playing there fell into the rain-swollen Rock River on Sunday afternoon and was swept downstream.
Thankfully, police and a man in a fishing boat responded in time and pulled the boy from the river near RiversEdge Bowl.
But the next child to fall into the river at the town square might not be so lucky. The city should investigate water safety at the town square and consider whether the design of the square itself could be inviting a tragedy.
What makes the town square so appealing to families and children—the water fountain and an elegant stairway leading to the river’s edge—might also make it dangerous.
Parents should know better than to allow small children to play on the town square’s steps near the river, but some parents might not. And if a parent isn’t paying close attention, a child playing at the water fountain could meander to the steps alongside the river. From there, it’s only one misstep into a fast current, which could turn deadly for a small child or anyone who doesn’t know how to swim well.
The danger is made worse by the concrete walls that line the river through the downtown. Even if a child who falls into the water can swim, the walls stop anyone from easily climbing out of the river.
Fortunately in Sunday’s case, the boy managed to stay afloat so the police could reach him near the bowling alley, about 250 yards from the town square, by tossing the boy a rope. Ken Gifford, the man in a nearby fishing boat, helped lift the boy to safety.
The design of the town square coupled with the inaccessible shoreline downstream creates a riskier situation than city officials might have realized.
City Manager Mark Freitag said Monday he’s assigned Deputy City Manager Ryan McCue to “review the incident” with police and other city agencies.
One idea discussed Monday, Freitag said, is to “place round life preservers with attached ropes along our highly-trafficked river frontage.”
Offering life preservers would be a good start.
Some parents, in social media comments about Sunday’s incident, wanted the city to go further and fence off access to the river at the town square.
But such a measure would defeat part of the purpose of the town square, which is to give people access to the river. Too much fencing would ruin some of the square’s best features.
It’s important to remember, too, the city alone isn’t responsible for the public’s safety. Parents need to do their parts to protect their children playing at the square. Parents should stay alert (stay off the smartphones) and make sure their children understand the river at the square isn’t for playing.