Once upon a time, the prince and the pauper, fairs and protests, old and young, shopping and work, reading and playing, were two sides of the same coin, a coin named – the life of a city. Today, as the differences between the two sides dawn upon us, we are soon going to celebrate the death of a city, not even at a common funeral but private ceremonies at our homes.

Public squares are the lungs of a city and it needs that breath of air like never before. With time, we have resorted to our shells with occasionally coming out for work or personal demands. Whereas today, for our heterogeneous, multicultural, and multi-ethnic society, we need an open space for human use and informal sociability. Kevin Lynch’s Image of the City still holds as our city demands a node to hold its image and identity together, where journeys of unknown people converge for a larger cause.

Following are some of the guidelines, studied by the researchers, that have been and can be used for an efficient public square today.

1. Form of the square

The form of a square has been widely studied with a common objective in mind – a sense of enclosure. As far as shapes are concerned, they can take any physical shape like square, rectangle, circular but a public square is largely driven by the surrounding built forms and can be classified as – Closed square, Dominated square, Nuclear square, Grouped squares, Amorphous square.  (Paul Zacker, Town and Square, New York: Columbia University Press, 1959)

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Trafalgar Square, London ©www.britannica.com

Trafalgar Square, London, as depicted in the picture below is a clear example of a nuclear square where the Nelson monument acts as the drawing force of the system.

2. Location

The location of a city square is one of the most important factors for designing. It is primarily located at the intersection of several pedestrian networks to create a hub for people who can pass that place regularly. The location should already have people coming for different activities so that the public space can act as a tool to facilitate the existing life of the place.

It should have multiple entrances, from the middle of the square or the edge, but such that is welcoming to people. It should be a node of movement and activity.

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Piazza di Spagna, Spanish Steps, Rome, Italy ©wikipedia.org
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Aerial View of Piazza di Spagna, Spanish Steps, Rome, Italy, showing the intersection of pedestrian streets ©www.pinterest.co.uk

One such example is the Spanish Steps, Rome, Italy where the square has been placed at the junction of several pedestrian streets.

3. Squares – part of the street

Squares are born out of the intersection of streets where a large number of people can start coming to that place as just passers-by. In that case, according to William Whyte, the most important part of the system is the street corner, the connection between the square and the street. This is where people consider entering the square.

To treat it with walls or change in levels may affect the junction and prevent people from entering. An elevation of more than 3 ft can lead to visual discontinuity as well as a problem for the physically disabled people. A lowering of level more than 3 ft may create a sense of isolation or separation. (Whyte, William H. 1980. The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. New York: Project for Public Spaces)

The levels may work in case of an event or any activity performed on a large scale which then turns the square into an amphitheater.

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General Gordon Square, New York City ©www.gp-b.com

General Gordon Square in New York City is an open square that is part of the pedestrian streets and feels like an extension of the regular activities.

4. Activities

A city square is meant to bring people together, irrespective of their activities and other factors. Henceforth, public open space should be able to cater to a crowd of people at once. This may be the reason why shopping malls are hugely popular today since people prefer to be at a place where multiple needs are served.

Historical squares have also been classified based on the function that is – internal function, associated function, arterial node function, and multiple functions. (Paul Zacker, Town and Square, New York: Columbia University Press, 1959)

These classifications also tell about the varied purposes with which open spaces were earlier used whereas today, most of the activities are done indoors or within gated complexes.

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Connaught Place, New Delhi, India ©www.thestatesman.com

Connaught Place in New Delhi is a city square at the heart of the capital of India, which is a commercial, financial, and business hub. It has been divided into rings with rows of shops, offices, etc. and can be termed as an example for its multi-functional characteristic.

5. Size

The size of a square is hugely dominated by factors like – the activities, possible number of users, and the surrounding built forms. There is a general theory to maintain a ratio of 1:2 between building height and space width to create a sense of defined space.

According to Jan Gehl, the span of a square should be such that people can perform their activities amongst themselves and at the same time, can read others’ facial expressions and their emotional state.

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Ghirardelli Square, San Francisco ©commons.wikimedia.org

While Ghirardelli square in San Francisco is an appropriate scale of a human being and surrounding buildings, Trafalgar square has been designed for an even larger number of users and purposes.

6. Subspaces

Large public squares can be intimidating in the absence of sufficient landscaping, street furniture, or subspaces. (Marcus, Clair Cooper, and Carolyn Francis. 1998. People Places: Design Guidelines for Urban Open Space, Second Edition. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.)

According to Christopher Alexander, a large space can be considered as a family of small and hierarchical spaces. But the smaller spaces have to be more or less the size of a regular plaza to prevent a sense of intrusion or isolation among the people to qualify as subspaces.

They can act as a set of plazas within a square but should have visibility and accessibility to the larger space.

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Subspaces within a public space, Green acre park, New York City ©pinterest.com
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Subspaces within a public space, Green acre park, New York City ©org

Green acre park in New York City is a square that has been subdivided into smaller spaces with walls, slight elevations, and planters.

7. Focal point elements

Often, the obelisk or fountain is not placed right at the center of a historical city square. The placement of elements may not be necessarily geometrically driven. It can be a consequence of an intuitive network of paths taken by the pedestrian.

The links between the accesses draw the main networks used by the people. This network creates islands of spaces that may not be utilized and thus, have a tendency to become stagnant zones. To revitalize them, elements like fountains and sculptures are placed at the center of these zones. (Sitte, Camillo, Christiane Crasemann Collins, George R. Collins. 1986. Camillo Sitte: The Birth of Modern City Planning: with a translation of the 1889 Austrian edition of his City Planning According to Artistic Principles. New York: Rizzoli.)

Therefore, while placing the focal elements, it is important to take note of the movement of the pedestrians and zones created by them, along with the geometry.

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Market Square of Poznan, Poland ©in.pinterest.com

The market square at Poznan is a public open space where one may find several elements like fountains and seating, concerning the pedestrian islands.

8. Surrounding building characteristics

The crucial part of a city square is its edges, which are defined by the surrounding buildings. (Alexander, Christopher, Sara Ishikawa, and Murray Silverstein. 1977. A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction. New York: Oxford University Press)

These play a major role in attracting and keeping the people within that zone. According to Jane Jacobs, the walls of the building should be such that it keeps the eye of the pedestrian busy. This can be achieved with various, small scale activities rather than one, single business. A square with cafes and retail stores attracts visitors and helps in making the place livelier.

The shops and other facilities should have visual connectivity with people through larger openings and the rest of the wall can be incorporated with different built features to create a balance between order and complexity. (Nasar, Jack L. 1989. “Perception, Cognition, and Evaluation of Urban Places.” Public Places and Spaces, 31-56. New York, NY, US: Plenum Press)

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New Market, Kolkata ©123rf.com
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New Market, Kolkata ©www.123rf.com

One such square or market is the New Market in Kolkata. It is not only a junction of several streets but is a hub for street shopping. Since the buildings along the edge were built during the colonial period, it has fenestrations and ornamentations that keep the scape busy.

9. Landscaping

This category includes features like hardscape, plantations as well as water bodies, or elements.

Hardscaping is quite important while designing an urban square. Pavement materials should consider factors like the durability, aesthetic appeal, reflection, and glare of the sun, friction, and should not create hindrance for the physically challenged people. (Christopher William Stebbins, “A tool to evaluate urban plazas for planning and design patterns that support sociability”)

It should also respond to the color and material palette of the surroundings and can be used to demarcate zones according to functions or other elements in the square.

The types of trees and plants play a huge role in the microclimate of the urban square. Often, during summer or daytime, the square gets heated up turning into a heat island, making it uncomfortable for the visitors.

While flowering shrubs can be used to visually soften the overall hardness of the pavement materials, the trees can seasonally act as shade givers as well as be aesthetically appealing.

Water elements can be introduced for regulating the temperature of the square as well as creating a tranquil or dynamic environment according to their forms.

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Bordeaux Platz, Muenchen, Germany ©muenchen.de
Victoria Square, Birmingham ©www.bisnow.com

Bordeaux Platz in Germany and Victoria square in Birmingham are examples of the use of trees and water features respectively.

10. Site furniture

Site furniture includes dustbins, light posts, signboards, seating, and so on. They are selected based on functionality and the context of the surrounding. While sufficient lighting makes the square safer after daytime, signboards ease the comprehensibility. Various materials may create chaos and henceforth, the material of the surrounding buildings should be taken into consideration. (Murat Z. Memluk, “Designing Urban Squares”)

Seating arrangements may be the last but not the least important in this list. They can make or break the social aspect of an urban square.

It should be the result of the climate of the location as well as the activities of the people. The seating should be provided in both forms -fixed and loose. Fixed seating can not only be thought of as fixed benches but also staircases as they are often used for sitting and leisure activities. Therefore, a wider span of stairs can be noted. Loose furniture gives people the liberty to select their zone in the square.

It should also allow interaction without intrusion but also be capable of making people observe other people’s activities. An ideal seating can be an irregular or curved arrangement which gives people more than one option to choose for their form of communication and rest.

Times Square, New York City ©Songquan Deng/Shutterstock.com

One of the prime examples of the use of site furniture that can make a space lively is Times Square in New York City. The extensive use of billboards with other site furniture makes it livelier in the evening.

Pavement materials at Piazza del Duomo, Florence ©wikimedia.org
The seating arrangement at Piazza del Duomo, Florence ©www.shutterstock.com

Piazza del Duomo, Florence is an example of the use of pavement materials as well as seating around the focal element of the square.

While several other factors can govern a design, the main objective is to achieve the democratization of space for a city and its people.


Aratrika Sarkar is an architectural student who strives to be an architect and a student forever. She loves the unfamiliar streets of an unfamiliar but a safe city. She aspires to be a sensitive human being and wants to spread love and peace through her works, written or designed.

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