“City squares seem to be waiting for a crowd to fill them up—”
May 15, 2016 9:50 AM   Subscribe

How Public Squares Disrupt City Life and Why That’s a Good Thing by George Packer [The Daily Beast] They can break up the monotony of the grid, provide the backdrop for social protest and change, spook you and mystify you—hard to define, city squares are indispensable.
A city square is a physical pause in the urban landscape. It’s a deliberate gap that interrupts the mass and clamor of buildings and streets, breaking up the flow of daily business and creating a space where people can come together, by design or happenstance. City squares are planned absences—they’re defined, first of all, by what they’re not. A city park already has a definition (grass, trees, paths) that tells you how it’s to be used: for leisure, for recreation, as a withdrawal from the city, with the illusion of being in nature and often alone. Squares, unlike parks, don’t take you out of the city. As an extension of urban life, neither natural nor solitary, they’re of the city as well as in it, but with a function that alters through history. Because of their very emptiness, they are full of possibility.
From an essay collection, City Squares edited by Catie Marron, which brings together 18 writers on the nature of these ubiquitous public spaces—some, like Red Square in Moscow, notorious; others, like Place des Vosges in Paris, a little more obscure.
posted by Fizz (14 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
posted by maryr at 10:01 AM on May 15, 2016 [4 favorites]

Public squares functioning in dual ways:
- places of unrest, civil protest, voting, business.
- places of control, violence, authority, public executions, military parades, coronation.

Very double-edged.
posted by Fizz at 10:02 AM on May 15, 2016 [3 favorites]

City squares are planned absences
Oh, whoops, this is not the definition of square I am familiar with in Boston. Please disregard my confusion about "grids".
posted by maryr at 10:05 AM on May 15, 2016 [3 favorites]

With such opposition to public squares these days - as dangerous, polluted, wasted space that allow the worst elements of society to prey on the most vulnerable - it's encouraging to finally hear the stirring of a counter-argument in favour of these oft-despised civic lacunae.
posted by Flashman at 10:31 AM on May 15, 2016 [4 favorites]

City squares in San Francisco at least, also serve the useful purpose as places to put homeless encampments, while the rest of the city life flows around them. I mean, nobody else uses them, do I guess that's what they're there for.
posted by happyroach at 11:21 AM on May 15, 2016

Nominally the city squares in Savannah were made to aid in defense, as rallying points for neighborhood militias. Each square was the center of a ward. . Then streetcar tracks were laid through them in places, then for a time in the 1950's and 60's, roads were carved through the squares for emergency vehicles, but everyone ended up using them. Thankfully the city was able to figure out their value before George Packer pointed it out. The roads were removed.
Today, they are cherished urban pocket parks. 24 at the high point, we are down to 20
posted by rudd135 at 11:42 AM on May 15, 2016 [2 favorites]

Squares and public spaces are usually my favorite way of feeling out a town. A public space enjoyed and inhabited by all sorts of people at all hours of the day tends to be a hallmark of a pretty healthy city (especially if it also offers things like park benches or places where you can sit without having to pay for the privilege). When I see that, I think, "Hey, I could probably live here."
posted by thivaia at 12:14 PM on May 15, 2016 [2 favorites]

Cleveland's 10-acre Public Square -- last seen as a backdrop in the movies "The Avengers" and "Christmas Story" -- and located smack in the middle of downtown Cleveland, is undergoing a renovation at the hands of James Corner, the landscape architect behind New York’s High Line. Nearly finished, the redesigned Public Square preserves one of downtown Cleveland's most magnificent artifacts, the Soldier's and Sailor's Monument.

Like all Cleveland's of a certain age, I have many vivid memories of Public Square, from sneaking into the hotel in the Terminal Tower and running up the back stairs to find the Beatles (I am not the person in the linked article), to seeing Bobby Kennedy there the day after Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot. But like all pubic spaces in big cities in the 70s and 80s, Public Square became the haunt of the homeless, the drifting, and the disconnected, and a place you didn't want to linger if you didn't fit into this categories.

Cleveland is a city that lives on hope. Let's hope this renovation launches a new history for Public Square -- it would be a great place to celebrate a Cavs championship.
posted by Modest House at 12:24 PM on May 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

Nathan Phillips Square (right in front of our City Hall) is undergoing a years-long--and past deadline & over budget--refurbishment that failed to remove the gigantic psychological barrier around the whole damn thing. It's such a terrible, terrible space.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 12:34 PM on May 15, 2016

maryr: Yeah, after a year of living here, I am still very confused about Boston/Cambridge/Somerville's idea of "Square", and I think that will continue long into the future.

When I lived in Philadelphia, on the other hand, the Squares were the sort of thing people understood as City Squares. And, nicely enough, they exist at the four corners (and the center) of a square. (Okay, it's a rectangle. But close!) Here's a nice overview of those squares.
posted by cardioid at 1:01 PM on May 15, 2016

As near as I can tell, in Boston/Cambridge/Somerville "square" baaaaasically means "crossroads." Which actually also means "busy and useful," unlike many more traditional "squares." Any time you build in a blank space in a city map, you have to make sure it is surrounded by activities that cross over into that space.
posted by praemunire at 1:40 PM on May 15, 2016 [2 favorites]

With such opposition to public squares these days - as dangerous, polluted, wasted space that allow the worst elements of society to prey on the most vulnerable - it's encouraging to finally hear the stirring of a counter-argument in favour of these oft-despised civic lacunae.

I don't understand this at all - I mean, as places to get attacked, they're no better or worse than any other place in the city. They're also vital to making a city livable.

I started commuting into NYC recently, to a spot in Midtown that's full of restaurants for blocks around. It's all private space. There's barely enough space to stand on the sidewalk and have a cigarette, and I really wish there was .... something. A park, a bench, something.
posted by Rainbo Vagrant at 1:43 PM on May 15, 2016 [2 favorites]

Then there's Yonge-Dundas Square here, which is actually almost a triangle.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 2:00 PM on May 15, 2016

In most European cities, you can't walk for more than ten blocks without finding a plaza, or whatever they call them in their language. Very refreshing, as someone who lives in a city where property prices are skyrocketing, resulting in "urban scrunch," to coin a term, in which developers squeeze in all the condos and parking garages they can with no regard to the quaint idea of "urban planning," something Europeans--especially Scandinavians--have done really well.
posted by kozad at 4:44 PM on May 15, 2016 [3 favorites]

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