Time-Honored Places: The Public Square, Part II

Public Spaces as squares are plazas in Spain, Latin America, and sometimes the U.S., piazzas in Italy, platz in German-speaking countries, and simply "square" everywhere in between. In many small towns they have the Village Green. In essence they are the main gathering places for people.

Time-Honored Places: The Public Square, Part II
Valencia, Spain

Part I: These are some of the many squares where we played a catalytic role. Campus Martius, high-lighted below is a prime example

Catalytic Places: Public Squares
What great squares have to offer their communities is limitless. Above all, it’s the social life that works in these squares: What are perhaps the most magical parts about these places are the simple, crucial chance encounters that allow us to have with others.

Part II: This post explores squares that we think collectively add a lot to the larger discussion we can have about the importance of squares are in defining cities where they are located.

Most great cities around the world have a public square as their defining place.

Public squares are often some of the most well-loved and recognizable places in our communities, and hold particular significance to cities. Part of their charm is that they are not so easily categorized: They take many forms and serve many purposes, enriching communities around the world. They can be hosts to markets, stretch alongside waterfronts, and offer spaces for cultural events. No two are the same, but all can offer valuable lessons.

So, what exactly is a square?

These public spaces go by many names around the world: plaza in Spain, Latin America (and sometimes the U.S.), piazza in Italy, platz in German-speaking countries, and simply "square" in many other places. In many small towns they are referred to as village greens.

Squares are many things, but in essence they are gathering places for people. They often center around a church, government building, or cultural hub (like an opera house), and frequently feature monuments and statues of prominent cultural and historical figures. Some squares double as markets, while others have activated edges with cafes and seating surrounding them.

The best squares focus on people. They provide a mix of spontaneity and programming, and become everyday stages where passerby are actors in a never-ending urban theater.

Lessons from Historic Squares

When we work with communities to shape their squares, including the catalytic square projects featured in Part 1 of this series, we use examples from our travels. We draw on other public spaces around the world, including many squares and waterfronts... which just so happen to be our favorite public spaces to research.  

Many of our most-photographed examples are in Europe and at times, when we talk about these examples, people respond that their communities "are not like Europe." This implies that the creation of these types of public squares is not possible in their communities. To this, we usually reply with Holly Whyte's wisdom, that public spaces are built with a set of basics that transcend location. In other words, if you get a few basic elements right, a public square can be great, no matter where in the world it is.

Valencia, Spain

Valencia is a city famed for its cuisine and its Central Market, but perhaps it should also be world-renowned for its public spaces, including its squares! The success of these spaces might come down to the number of public cultural events taking place, along with the opportunities for outdoor dining, spots to sit, and places to cool off by a fountain.

Buenos Aires - Plaza Dorrego in San Telmo

This square in the center of San Telmo is the site of an antique market on weekends. In other moments, it marks the beginning of an active street market (Calle Defensa) which is full of local vendors offering everything from jewelry to street performances, food and entertainment. It sets the scene for people-watching with intense interest. It is street theatre at its best.

Sunday Antique Market at Plaza Dorrego

Venice, Italy - Campo Santa Margherita

In a city free of cars, Venice's Campo Santa Margherita is a great place to take a stroll and surround oneself with the city's unique history. The piazza has various kiosks and vendors, as well as active storefronts that reach out into the square. One is guaranteed to witness lots of spontaneous chance encounters and people just spending time observing the activity. It is some of the best people watching we have seen.

Munich, Germany - Viktualienmarkt

Munich's Viktualienmarkt (Victuals Market) is an anchor destination in Munich, in large part because it is, as we've written in the past "as much a city square as it is a market." What that means is that there are many reasons why one would want to visit — meaning that people from all walks of life and of all ages are there, eating, shopping, having a beer or a coffee, or people-watching.

Its seasonality, connectedness to other destinations like Munich's City Hall, and sheer variety of vendors and entrepreneurs means that it is almost impossible for it to be a boring place — there is simply too much to eat, see, hear, and smell! Plus, the central area is a massive beer garden.

Driving the Local Food Economy with Social Life: Munich’s Victuals Market
The Victuals Market (Viktualienmarkt) in Munich, Germany Central “Market Square” is typical of the historic squares around Europe, showcasing the local commerce, culture and diversity in the center of each city.

Gabriel's Wharf — London

The story of Gabriel's Wharf, as it exists today, began in 1988. Carried out on an ultra-quick timeline of three months, the Gabriel's Wharf project could now be called London's oldest pop-up. By using a "Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper" approach, developers of the space were able to take a small square on the London's South Bank and turn it into a prominent riverside attraction on the Thames. It's still a favorite stop for off-beat, fun shops, bars,  and dining establishments. Many even consider it to be a riverside "town square" of sorts.

Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper: Gabriel’s Wharf, London
Built in 1988, It took 3 months to develop, cost 78,000 pounds and created 60 jobs. It is still thriving today.

Barcelona - Basilica de Santa Maria del Mar Square

This cathedral in Barcelona is what Gaudí drew on as he created the world-renowned Sagrada Familia. But beyond serving as inspiration for the design of a church, the basilica is the backdrop to a lively and historic square.

Homage to Barcelona
Barcelona is most itself in smallish, protected spaces and what makes these spaces memorable is what happens in them.
Seven Places to Experience the Awe-Inspiring Social Life of Barcelona
Seven spots around Barcelona that offer crucial lessons to instill social life in an urban setting: Sagrada Famila, Palau de la Musica Catalana, a Giant Flea Market, Parc de la Ciutadella, a busy neighborhood…park, market and street…and a small fountain

Stockholm - Kungsträdgården Square

Stockholm's Kungsträdgården has everything one could want in a great square. It is designed to have various "rooms," which range from gardens to fountains, and grassy areas, all of which give visitors a wide variety of scenery from which to choose.

It is also connected with other exciting parts of the city: As we have previously written, it features an esplanade leading from the city center to the waterfront, as well as a large water feature that doubles as a major event space. It has a stage and amphitheater seating for events and plays host to a skating rink in the winter. All together, these elements add up to one of the most diverse and important squares in Europe.

In the upper part of the square, a major water feature offers a memorable place to either cool off or enjoy performances and programming. The space serves many purposes through its design, and the steps that surround it invite lingering and people-watching.

Stockholm's Kungsträdgården has a multi-functional fountain space that can also be used for performances.

Nearby to the fountain is a stage that is often buzzing with live music. It is flexible, and can be converted into a dance floor or provide space for lines of benches for a seated audience!

The central plaza of Stockholm's Kungsträdgården

The central plaza of the Kungsträdgården is also a huge draw, with turf giving people a reason to recline or take a seat, and its famed lion statues providing a fun place to play or pose for photos.

Besides being connected to the Kungsträdgården, Stockholm's esplanade paths down to the waterfront are, in and of themselves, exciting connections and places to stroll. They are also full of chances to enjoy local dining.

Kungsträdgården: Stockholm’s Square for All
Stockholm’s Kungsträdgården has everything one could want in a great square. It is one of the most diverse and important squares in Europe

Porto, Portugal - Waterfront Squares

Porto's waterfront spaces cascade down the slope to the water, with human-scaled developments all along the way. The waterfront has direct access from the central part of Porto through three distinct entrances all leading to a large plaza/square and two levels of a promenade along the waterfront...creating one of the best multilayered destination on any waterfront.

Three Iconic Waterfronts—Two of World’s Best, and One that Fails Miserably
What Brooklyn (and everywhere else) can learn from Paris and Porto, Portugal
Capitalizing on the Appeal of Waterfronts: 11 of the Best
Of all the types of public spaces that exist, waterfronts are among the most strongly linked to the identity and history of a city. There could be no Stockholm without the harbor; no San Francisco away from the Bay; no Rio without its beaches.

A Square that Isn't A Square: Buenos Aires' Intersections

In Buenos Aires' Palermo neighborhood, intersections have been changed to act as "public squares." These places have been re-designed, and intersections raised to make the transition from sidewalk to street more seamless. Meanwhile, buildings that sit at the corners have canted entrances, which make the intersections feel more open to social activity.

Who Owns the Intersection Defines the Social Life of Neighborhoods
You can tell a great city by its corners. If If the intersection is owned by the vehicles, it is a city for cars and traffic. If the community controls the intersections/corners, it is a city of neighborhoods.
The Social Life of Sidewalks
Paradigm-shattering change will happen when streets, sidewalks and intersections are transformed into community gathering spots through the simple act of giving human beings priority over motor vehicles.

Takeaways

Every square is different and reflects its unique local culture and context. But, there are a set of basics that are the common ingredients for successful social life:

Squares are varied in size and form, but many are centered around churches, statues, or academic institutions, while the activity in others orbits around the presence of a market. They often have a focal point or anchor destination.

Squares achieve many kinds of social and economic impacts, which happen to the benefit of the whole community.

Squares can be supported by architecture, benefitting from the presence of grand entrances to iconic cathedrals and city halls. These are important destinations in and of themselves, but active ground floor uses of any establishment (shops and restaurants included) often spill into the square and add a sense of life.

Markets, vending, cafes and other small-scale economic enterprises are core elements to squares. Sometimes a market is the main attraction.

Programming of special events and activities are an important part of the life of a square. In the best squares, there is always something worth seeing or doing.  

The variety of people can often speak to the wide-ranging appeal of a square. This means that the presence of people representing different cultures, age groups, and genders is a good sign!

The best squares are constantly changing... You never know what to expect, because surprise and wonder are basic qualities of a good square.

The best squares have lots of places to sit and a wide variety of social seating.

Squares offer lots of flexibility for changing activities and uses, even when there are changes to the numbers of people visiting (e.g. seasonal).

What the best squares do not have, with (very) few exceptions, is cars or traffic. They center social activity, and prioritize safety.

For these reasons and more, public squares are epicenters of social activity in their communities. These elements are just the beginning of what makes them so vital to our daily lives.


The mission of Social Life Project is to incite a renaissance of community connection around the globe. It is an initiative of The Placemaking Fund, along with PlacemakingX — a global network of activists and community champions propelling the movement forward.