City squares have been centers of urban life ever since the first city came up 6000 years ago. Be it the Greek Agoras or Roman Forums or the Italian Piazzas, city squares reflect the identity and cultural background of the communities inhabiting. Initially shaped around religious structures, public squares were designed adopting principles of axial order and hierarchy. With the early republic period, they came to be designed around administrative buildings.
City squares act as urban catalysts that promote the coexistence of people from different social, economic, and cultural backgrounds and age groups offering a thriving multi-use urban space. These open squares are integral elements of the city structure that complete the open-built composition. City squares are civic centers that can develop into commercial hotspots, informal sports centers, and stages for political activities and community functions. In addition to being places for leisure activities, they serve as urban greens that reduce the effects of urban heat islands, control noise levels, improve air quality and allow drainage of surface runoff into the soil.
The contemporary urban environment is a complex heterogeneous mix of the multicultural and multiethnic population. The fragmented nature of modern communities has led to a decline in the use of public spaces. Privatization and decentralization are the two major issues concerning the future of cities and open public spaces. Along with overcrowding, exorbitant property rates, and increased vulnerability to criminal activities, the reduction of per capita open space is an issue our cities are battling lately. Further virtual environments and the new consumer habits have developed malls and social media sites into the new ‘social platforms’. Hence, today urban environments are decentralized, discontinuous, and multipolar.
These underutilized city squares are ideal platforms for exploring innovative strategies for strengthening public spaces and urban culture. Deep-rooted changes can shift the way a city functions – not just its built form, but also its underlying social systems.
Some examples of city squares acting as catalysts for urban transformation include:
People’s Square in Shanghai, China
People’s Square Shanghai is the largest public space in the city surrounded by the Grand Theater, Shanghai Museum, and the City Hall. However, the main attraction of the square is its transformation into a marriage market on the weekends crowding the space with parents eager to find a suitable match for their offspring. One would often find posters showing age, zodiac, sign, weight, height, job, educational background, personal income, and the birthplace of unwed youngsters transforming the space into a physical manifestation of the contemporary online matrimonial sites.
Bedok Town Square, Singapore
The Bedok Town Square acts as a theater of sorts where residents can enjoy outdoor movie screenings, community arts, yoga classes, and music performances right at their doorstep.
Líber Seregni Square & Park in Montevideo, Uruguay
The park is an example of a city square developing into a sports center for the city complete with a basketball court, football field, skate park, and a children’s playground. The park that was left unused and neglected has now developed into the city’s much-loved urban recreational space
Sechseläuten Square in Zürich, Switzerland
The location was well known since 2006 when the remains of prehistoric pile dwellings were uncovered from the site while constructing a parking lot. The parking lot is replaced by a public plaza and underground parking space allowing pedestrians to stroll around or sunbathe on the movable chairs, while kids play in the waterworks.
Manek Chowk, Ahmedabad
The historic plaza in old Ahmedabad is surrounded by gold jewelers on all sides. The Chowk remains active throughout the day and night, hence providing security for the shops. It acts as a vegetable market in the morning, a bullion market at noon, and the street food market at night. The Chowk is a popular spot among food lovers.
Grand Place, Belgium
The Grand place is one of the most important tourist locations in Brussels and has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1998. Every two years, in August, the square is decorated with a magnificent flower carpet covering most of the square attracting a large number of tourists.
Ferry Building, San Francisco
The Ferry Building San Francisco is an example of a transport terminal transforming into the city’s favorite commercial spot. The plaza adjoining the ferry building transforms into a farmer’s market on the weekends accessible to all those visiting the ferry.