Town squares: why we should have more quality places in our cities.

Have you ever tried to find a place to hang out with friends or family, ending up (against your will) in a mall, a restaurant/bar or somebody’s house?

That is what happens in many cities that do not have a public place specifically designed and/or equipped for social gatherings. In other words, spaces that have only business as the only purpose. This is especially true for small-medium sized American cities and suburbs. However, this is not only common in the United States, for in Europe, as well as the whole modern world, are following the same trend. The point here is to prove that we can enhance the social life of our cities through Urban Planning.

Town square: An open public space typically found in the heart of a traditional town used for community gatherings. Squares are usually surrounded by buildings with shops at the ground floor. This type of public place is usually pedestrian friendly or pedestrian only; this is why they usually have hardscapes suitable for marketplaces or public events. They are also featured by a particular design in terms of landscape, urban furniture, and are in many cases located by fountains or monuments. The town square is also known as an urban square, market square, public square, or plaza.

Town squares are special gathering places that can improve a city’s “public life”, where the first and only aim is not business, but free time activities:

  • Social gathering: taking a stroll having an ice cream, sitting outside of a café conversing with no rush, or reading a book sitting on a bench.
  • Special activities: flea/antique markets, or temporary ice skating rings.
  • Events: live music, or political gatherings.

Like I said these are special spaces which are usually the heart of the town. They can be designed to take advantage of a particular place which showcases monuments, landmarks, waterfronts, breath taking views; places that are symbolic and places that people can identify with. In other words, people will not gather at an open space located in the middle of nowhere, or places with no pleasant views and nothing interesting to do. It does not have to be a hardscape place. In fact many urban parks can achieve similar results.

Often when it comes to urban renewal or urban regeneration, urban planners focus their research on the core of the city or the neighborhood. Even when more recent areas are involved in the renewal, the key is always the identity. 

Identity (of a place):  A mix of history, culture, sense of belonging, and a civilization of a certain place. It’s commonly related to a historical site, or simply because that place symbolizes the origins of the city and/or its development through time. Examples: monuments, views, natural landmarks, traditional activities.

Studying a community identity can be rather complex due to its socio-anthropologic implications. What we really need to know is that a successful space needs to have its own community awareness. A community space needs a strong reason to exist, and that need must be shared by the people within that community. So what happens when a city lacks of a public space similar to the town square? Many American cities, especially the small ones, are missing the opportunity to enrich their public life.

Most modern cities have evoloved to accomodate around the need for automobiles. It has become a common necessity to have a car in the U.S. because most residential communities are too isolated and too far away from stores and public services. Shopping centers for food or clothing are rarely located within walking distance of residential or even many business areas. In some cases, people have to drive 3 miles in a residential area to be able to reach the nearest local grocery store. This factor had a great impact on the urban structure because huge residential communities, where there is nothing else but houses for miles, lead to a more detached society where people only mind their business and hardly get to know their neighbors. Sadly, these communities prove the equation “residential area = dormitory”, which can be considered rather harsh but most of the times is the reality.

Based on what we found so far, here are the main issues in short and how we can address them:

 

Issues Proposed solution
City level A main civic plaza or a “central park” with accurately planned activities, located in or next to the city core, will strengthen the whole city identity and improve the overall perception.  The activity-based urban renewal will also attract investments, new businesses and increase the average land/building money value.
  • Small cities and suburbs lack of one or more places featuring some kind of local identity that can give the whole city new social activities. Most of the times the “downtown renewal” only means building renovation.
Residential community level A local civic center/park with accurately planned activities, located by the center of the community, will create a new local identity and improve the social life in the neighborhood.  The activity-based facilities will also attract investments, new small businesses and increase the average land/building money value.
  • People are isolated in their neighborhood and tend to use their homes as mere “dormitories”.
  • Residential areas are too vast and need more basic services and local stores.


What I call square or civic plaza/center could also be a street properly equipped or any other line based place with a specific identity and with similar features as the historical square. Even if there is no “tangible identity”, quality architecture and landscape design can help building a new one. Here are a few examples to take ideas from, regardless of the size of the city:

Millennium Park in Chicago: view of the city skyline, park for all ages, fountains, hardscape with a monument/sculpture, renewed city identity, concert stage, and various events’ pavilions.

Riverwalk in San Antonio TX: promenade, landscape design, shops and cafes.

Open public spaces like town squares, if properly equipped and adapted to the local community, can improve our Urban life through an active use of the city that we live in. What’s more important is that we get to spend a higher quality time that does not depend exclusively on shopping and consumerism.

-Alberto Secondi

Related links:

Civic Plaza in Albuquerque

Pioneer Courthouse Square in Portland

Columbia Heights in Washington DC 

 

More examples of town square design and activities:

Urban furniture design in Bressanone (Italy)

Bressanone (Italy): urban furniture design for small towns, symbolic hardscape design (Tyrol’s creeks)

Heinrich-böll-platz in Cologne, hardscape, urban furniture, greenscape, water sprays playground, family hangout.

Heinrich-Böll-platz in Cologne, hardscape, urban furniture, greenscape, water sprays, playground, family hangout.

Piazza della Vittoria, Pavia (Italy): hardscape, portico, marketplace, shops and cafes.

Piazza della Vittoria, Pavia (Italy): hardscape, portico, marketplace, shops and cafes.

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