An exciting public square


A public square is defined as an open area located in the heart of a city. It always existed, started at least 6000 years ago. The squares acquired more and more functions with the development of human society and the development of cities. In recent times, theaters, restaurants and museums are also finding their place on the squares. Cities themselves, are actually becoming museums, a collection of human experiences that preserve numerous cultural values. Particularly since the invention of motorized traffic, the individual vehicle has almost destroyed most of the open public spaces.

Christopher Alexander indicated that 'Outdoor spaces which are merely "left over" between buildings will, in general, not be used.' (1977, p. 518) It is important to note, square has taken over the most important responsibility of outdoor space. Theoretically, we could say great squares and plazas give identity to cities. Although there are already so many public squares all around the world, it is always a challenging job to find the criteria for public square. What we really want from a public square? What can make a square become more exciting?

The need in square design

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First of all, square has been consciously used a gathering place, usually it has strong sense of enclosure and convenient connections to streets. It is usually refers as an area that framed by buildings. Therefore, the sense of enclosure is commonly argued. The value of enclosure affect the success of square is also argued.

Camillo Sitte (1989) derived a series of artistic principles. For Sitte, enclosure was the primary feeling of urbanity, and his overarching principle was that 'public square should be enclosed entities'. He thought it should not be possible to see out of the square along more than one street at a time. Paul Zucker (1959) outlined types of urban squares. He indicated there are different types of square in visual dimension: the closed square, the dominated square, the nuclear square, grouped squares and the amorphous square. He thought that square does not have to be entirely close, it could be created by some recognizing buildings. It also can be characterized by a building or group of buildings towards which the space is directed, and to which all surrounding structures are related.

The reason why people extremely concerned about enclosure of square comes from the need of safety, comfort and contained. Some of them even thought square must be entirely closed. But, in fact, unenclosed squares are not always uncomfortable and unsafe. 'That fact that people feel more comfortable in a space which is at least partly enclosed is hard to explain. To begin with, it is obviously not always true. For example, people feel very comfortable indeed on an open beach, or on a rolling plain, where there may be no enclosure at all. '(Alexander C 1977, p. 520). Clare Cooper found: people seek areas which are partially enclosed and partly open --- not too open, not too enclosed (1969). In other words, the extent of enclosure should be carefully considered when we do distribution. With no doubt, enclosure is one principle of making beautiful square, but there is no absoluteness.

Discovery public square

People want coherence and a sense of safety in public spaces, but they don't want blandness (Kaplan and Kaplan 1989, Marsh 1990). To be honest, sometime, we focus too much on safety. However, comfort couldn't make the square exciting at all. Lovatt and O'connor(1995), others, have written about 'liminal' spaces - those formed in the interstices of everyday life and outside 'normal' rules - where different cultures meet and interact. Discovery might also involve programmes of animation..."We wanted a place that was green and that was a center of activity for downtown, but we didn't want a place that was tranquil and beautiful, but there was nothing to do." explains Bob Gregory. (a former General Motors executive who oversaw the planning of Campus Martius)Therefore, what we need for square is the attractions for seeking people. The psychological attraction to the square comes from curiosity. It is different from Sitte's principle, actually, as we walking through a place, we like to see the diversification. It is our innate habit to discover the space.

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So, practically speaking, distribution of square might be only one small fraction of making successful square. A square must content lots of factors to be really successful. Undoubtedly, square is designed for people to use. Therefore the functional facility should be the physical attraction to all the users. Jan Gehl simplified that 'outdoor activities in public spaces can be divided into three categories, each of which places very different demands on the physical environment: necessary activities, optional activities and social activities.' (1971) For square, the necessary activities are generally compulsory. So transportation and shopping facilities should be included and they would be used mostly all time. But optional activities in squares are more relied on the exterior condition. Therefore, the diversification of optional activities could make square suit for different weather and season conditions. Social activities are included communal activities of various kinds, the opportunity of communication is relied on the environment and surrounding of square. Just imagine, if there are shopping opportunities around the square and there are sitting facilities with nice green or water features, then people will gather and rest unselfconsciously. That is something we could not be forced.

Sometimes, activities which expected to have never appear. It is because lack of understanding of the type of square. The type of square can help us to roughly separate them into different circumstance. It could be a ceremonial, religionary, social, traffic or even mixed. All the functions we put into should fit the square. However, a successful square should provide activities opportunities, but, that is to say, it must be informed by deeply understanding of how people using it or what is the need from people. It is crucial to find the appropriate use for certain places and to engage the space with right activities. This is based on the observation of the relationship between activities and space. Visual analysis could give a probable perception of the space. 'When you observe a space you learn about how it is actually used, rather than how you think it is used.' advised by project for public space(PPS, 1999, p51) That's to say, we need to understand the square before we start to do something about it.

Regeneration project of Nottingham old market square

Old market square in Nottingham is one of the oldest public squares in the UK, with an 800 year history as a marketplace. The square form the central city and the prospect became a mental image remembered by citizens. But only couple of years ago, old market square was a completely different image.

The square was the original setting of Nottingham Goose Fair, an annual fair held in October originating over 700 ­years ago. It was moved in 1928 for the redevelopment of the square. Previously, the Square has been nicknamed 'Slab Square' because of the high numbers of concrete paving slabs that made the former Square. The Square was redesigned to compliment the New Council House in 1927 with several different height platforms creating a central procession way.

The form of old market square is not common as what we discussed above. The plan revealed the complicated composition of buildings surrounded and the open gesture in comparison to other squares. The original intention of the place is market space, therefore, it is only partly enclosed by City Council House in the east and it has terrible intervention of traffic in the west to the south. It seems fundamentally the fabric against Camillo Sitte's principle at all and not meet Paul Zucker's visual dimension exactly in the first place. As the success of the square design has been argued, the old market square has been a question which left over by history for urban designers.

In 2004, Gustafson Porter won the competition of the redesign project. The construction finished in two years and the square re-opened in 2007. After the regeneration project finished, as we could see now, lots of factors has been improved, such as: accessibility, new or retained features, safety, flexibility and so on.

The new pedestrian routes improved accessibility by removing level change. The green featured square existed before is an intention for a central green garden in front of City. With nice trees, grass and seats, it seems like a great idea for social activities. But, however, before the regeneration, old market square is a place which citizen often walks around in a sort of sense. To be honest, sometime, people don't want to walk through a place which they couldn't easily see through. They don't want to waste time to walk up and down the steps if they just want to go through. It has restricted movement on the square especially disable people. Besides, because of the barely used, the green feature absolutely comes into certain hidden danger because of the shield space it created.

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Another intention is about the old role of dividing the city. The tie area used to be a cut off of the surrounding borough. People are looking for the new design could create better relationship between square and contexts, and there is no long a border or barrier excited. As we all know, one thing has bothered the square for a long time - traffic. On the southern side of the square, along South Parade is the tram stop of the Nottingham Express Transit. Because the Market Square was once at the heart of the city's road network, it has set lots of tram and bus stop. Although, today it is closed to all traffic except buses along Beast Market Hill and the tram. It is the biggest interruption to the square, as there is no way to get away with it. However, for the new design, a water feature located at the west side of square provided an obstruction to the tram line and created more stimulating environment. It comes into a focused interest to the west end and then offered the capacity in between. The capacity provided considerable flexibility for different types of events there. It has hosted lots of popular events including free outdoor concerts, celebration firework, delicious foods fair and a bulb and flower festival. The large flat open space is also able to hold sports events, a variety of markets and health campaigns. Those things really bring the whole area to live.

The design also tried to incorporate topography of the original medieval square, and accommodates existing falls by gradual level changes for disabled users and drainage. The main material is granite, to reflect the importance of the space and provide longevity. Seating terraces of grey, black, white and granite blocks created level changes and create movement opportunities around the water feature.

'The 4,400m2 water features comprises a reflecting pool, a 1.8m waterfall, rills, 53 jets and a scrim, arranged as terraces. These can be turned off and used as stages or temporary viewing areas. Indirect lighting is via feature masts which can support temporary lighting trusses and banners, complemented by fibre optics below the jets, and concealed lighting to benches, steps and handrails. Five listed lanterns and two flag poles have also been refurbished and integrated into the new scheme.' (Gustafson Porter described on website)

Lighting is also a crucial factor in this design. In the past, poor lighting also created an unwelcoming atmosphere at night, which prevented families or the elderly from enjoying the square. The new lighting system encouraged 24 hour use, enable activity to spill out into the space, and attract pedestrians

The impact of the new design is distinct. At lunchtimes and early evenings, it has become a well used space. It is also an exciting and popular attraction for all the tourists. This project has delivered a contemporary landscape design. The big contrast in this case challenge surrounded building in the city centre. But the result pleased most of people.

But, there are still some people think the previously one works better. "Personally I like the new water feature and I can see the benefits of having a large flat space for events. But I really miss the green of the old Market Square... It was really pleasant sitting in the square looking at the trees and flowers before. Now it has no feeling of being a green space at all." (comments about the Old Market Square on internet)

Changes of Leicester Square

In the other hand, Leicester Square which is a famous pedestrianised square in the west end of London has also carried various social activities for years. There is a park in the central area. It is bound by Cranbourn Street, to the north; Leicester Street, to the east; Irving Street, to the south; and a section of road designated simply as Leicester Square, to the west. Today, it is one of the busiest spots and one of the most interesting squares in London. It's busy because there are all kinds of buskers around. They always entertain the crowds with anything from an improvisation to a political rant. It is the centre of London's cinema land. Therefore, it is also a great place to catch an afternoon film followed by a cappucino and gossip in one of the many pavement cafes. The Square is a popular meeting place for friends looking for a drink and a chat and for tourists who seem to enjoy congregating outside the tube station.

But, 375 years ago, it began with Robert Sidney who purchased this area and built himself a large house named Leicester House at the north end. By the 19th century, the square became the heart of the west end entertainment district with the empire theatre of varieties. Today, the square is the prime location in London for major film premieres. There are people all over the place, especially on Friday and Saturday nights, it seems like a party on the pedestrianised area.

The fabric of the square is quite formal and enclosure. However, in history, the central area was private green area which should be used by residents there. But, by changing of time, it became a square that people does not expected to. Gordon Cullen wrote that 'A view of Leicester Square in the eighteenth century would be virtually impossible to reconcile with its present condition, a boisterous jungle of traffic, changing signs, vivid lettering and garish posters.'

'The desperate pre-war attempt to preserve a be-railed garden, although a pleasing evidence of official grit and determination, was always a flop. It simply induced a depressing feeling of prohibition, the feeling that one was being inhibited for the wrong reason ... There are sufficient cafes round the square to rent space for tables, as is done in France, and gaily coloured velariums suspended between the trees would give protection from birds and rain. What is most important, however, is for the landscapist to understand the vital and popular visual apperal of the Leicester Square type of landscape. The fact that it is the aesthetic expression of the dive and pin-table saloon, is no reason for the urban planner to turn up his nose. These activities, for better or for worse, are a part of urban life, and as such make a very valuable contribution to the visual scene.' (Cullen G, 1971, p. 101)

Leicester used to be an area that local avoided or walk around. Because the small patch of grass at the centre of the square is a shield place for junkies. After the local council's clean up in 1993, that area closed at night and it is safe to walk through. Today, the square is an excellent place to move around, with the green and seats, café and beautiful landscape. It is also holding events regularly and seasonally, such as winter fair and outdoor performances. It became good option of festival gathering spot. However, the attraction is not from the original distribution of the square at all but the intervention urban designer adapted into. By well understanding the type and character of the square, appropriate activities really delight the whole space.


Through times, some squares became contradictory. SOHO square was the reign as a most fashionable address in London. But, today, this square is surrounded by office building and it is rapidly deteriorating. Usually, park in the middle of the square was for the exclusive usage of the residents in the nearby houses, so you can hardly call it a public square. However, public like to use the area as resting or chatting place, SOHO square should be made advance with the need and have corresponding improvement.

An exciting square does not mean a successful square, but a successful square have to be somehow exciting. Today, city squares in UK are either full of commercial purpose or barely active green area. 'Some criticisms of urban regeneration undertakings in Britain have taken this view and have therefore associated urban design with the interests of private companies. As visual management is then seen as a luxury when more basic needs of health, education, and housing are at stake, urban design has been seen as reactionary or at best irrelevant.' (Madanipour A, 1997) The discovery of exciting square is to discovery of fundamentally designed square also with various pleasant activities. Enclosure is important, but it's shallow to judge a success of square by physical fabric. Without doubt, it should carry the basic need: accessibility, safety, imageability and so on. But only the deeply consideration of how people use the square can help the square become really live. The comfort doesn't, the safety doesn't. The activity does. The ability of urban design is much more likely to be used with analysis of the status and future strategy. Our experience of a place is based on a combination of several senses. (Shaftoe H. Therefore, a consideration through different factors should be made and focus on appropriate activities to make a square really well used by people.

In addition, if urban designer could think about aesthetics, it will make our square more exciting.


  • Alexander, C. (1977), A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction, Oxford University Press.
  • Cullen, G. (1961), The Concise Townscape, Architectural Press.
  • Carmona, Heath, Oc, Tiesdell (2003), Public Places, Urban Spaces, Architectural Press.
  • Jacobs, J. (1961), The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Random House Inc.
  • Madanipour, A. (1997), Town Planning Review, Liverpool University Press.
  • Sitte, C. (1889), City Planning According to Artistic Principles, Phaidon Press.
  • Shaftoe, H. (2008), Convivial Urban Spaces: Creating Effective Public Places, Earthscan Publications Ltd.
  • Zucker, P. (1970), Town and Square, MIT Press.

Internet Sources