Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Return of the Civic Square

From San Francisco to Vienna, squares are rebounding to become centers of civic life once more

Despite the misty-eyed memory of the town commons or village green, the plain truth is that most cities no longer have a good central square.
From the town greens of New England to the plazas of the Southwest, the U.S. has a great history of civic squares, but for decades this rich heritage has gone to waste. Poorly maintained, underused, and overrun by automobiles, our squares have been stripped of their rightful purpose: to sustain the economic and social vitality of cities. They are no longer places where one can have the regular, random encounters that foster the kind of social contact Jane Jacobs called "the small change from which a city’s wealth of public life may grow."
Fortunately, there are ample signs that civic squares are on the verge of a remarkable resurgence. Many projects are coming about now because public officials, planners and citizens are starting to understand that public life—meaning active, vital street life—is essential to rebuilding downtowns. We've put together a sample of international efforts to show how this understanding is shaping the next generation of civic squares. Some of these projects are established success stories, others are just getting underway, but together they herald the return of the square—and a new way of thinking about public space.
Click on any thumbnail below to view a slideshow:

Pioneer Courthouse Square
Portland, OR

Campus Martius
Detroit, MI

Public Square
Cleveland, OH

Hyde Park
Fort Worth, TX

Union Square
San Francisco, CA

Piazza del Duomo
Milano, Italy

Trafalgar Square
London, UK

Vienna, Austria

1. The Inner Square & the Outer Square
Frederick Law Olmsted's vision of the "inner park" and the "outer park" is just as relevant today as it was 100 years ago. The streets and sidewalks around a square greatly affect its accessibility and use, as do the buildings that surround it. Imagine a square fronted on each side by 15-foot blank walls. Then imagine it next to a public library: the library doors open right onto the square; people sit outside and read on the steps; maybe the children's reading room has an outdoor space on the square, or even a bookstore and cafe. An active, welcoming outer square is essential to the well-being of the inner square.

2. Attractions and Destinations
Any great civic square has a variety of smaller "places" within it. These attractions can be anything - outdoor cafes, fountains, sculpture, an event. They don't need to be big to make the square a true destination. In fact, some of the best civic squares have numerous small attractions that, put together, draw people all through the day.

3. Traffic, Transit & the Pedestrian
To be successful, a square needs to be easy to get to. The best squares in the world are always easily accessible by foot. The streets around them are narrow; the crosswalks are well marked; the lights are timed for pedestrians, not vehicles; the traffic moves slowly; and transit is nearby. On the other hand, a square surrounded by lanes of fast-moving traffic cuts the square off from pedestrians and deprives it of its essential element: people.

4. Flexible Design
Like any good public space, the use of a square changes during the course of the day, week, and year. However, very few squares feature adaptable designs, and management can rarely handle these changes. Seasons are key. If we begin to think about which elements could be added to attract people during each season, we will have many more squares that are successful year-round.

5. Management: Central to the Solution
Fluid, changing places are the ones that people return to time and time again. The only way to achieve this is by employing good managers who understand the pulse of the square. For example, they understand existing and potential users and gear events to both types of people. They are so familiar with the use patterns that waste receptacles get emptied at just the right time. Good managers create a feeling of comfort and safety in a square, fixing and maintaining it so that people have visible signs that someone is in charge.

6. Image and Identity
Historically, squares were the focal points of communities, and they often gave identity to an entire city. The elements of squares made their cities unforgettable: think of the Trevie Fountain in Rome, or the Swann fountain in Philadelphia's Logan Circle, or the Alice in Wonderland sculpture in Central Park. Today, creating a square that becomes the most significant place in a city-that gives identity to the city-is a huge challenge, but meeting this challenge is absolutely necessary if great civic squares are to return.