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Effect of Public Squares on Social Interaction

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Architecture
Wordcount: 4067 words Published: 2nd May 2018

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Social cohesion is a term used insocial policy, sociology and political science to describe the levels of social inclusion, integration, interaction and participation within a society, particularly in the context ofcultural diversity. It is associated the structural functionalism and political conservatism of the built environment, hence is directly affected by the process of Urban Design ().

The concept of Urban Design as a construct of the 20th Century is ambiguous in its definition (Carmona, 2003, p. 3). It suggests addressing (for the better) the characteristics of a city, by proposing revised plans through a process of pattern making, sketching and planning. (Carmona, 2003, p. 3)

However, the city in its own right is a complex organ which functions on multiple levels; economic, socio-cultural, political and environmental. The city as an organ is in a constant state of reaction, either to stimulus from within or external to its geopolitical confines (Lynch, 1990). Stated plainly, in order that a city performs successfully, it is necessary that it maintains or strives towards a state of dynamic equilibrium by simultaneously maintaining economic relevance to its wider context, and addressing the socio-economic needs of its citizens().

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Consequently by understanding the city (its elements) as containers for human activities, it may be observed that the notion of urban design today has evolved from the initial creation of building masses and the consequent articulation of public space (Carmona, 2003, p. 3). It is now to a greater extent concerned with the creation of a physical and socio-cultural public realm which is primarily enjoyed by its users, but also creates a greater sense of social cohesion, necessary for 'good community living' (Carmona, 2003). Hence it follows that if the primary aim for urban design today is 'making places for people' (Project for Public Spaces, 2009), we should examine critically the performances of different forms of public place in terms of encouraging social interaction and thus social cohesion.

First the public square, a familiar concept to the average man (French, 1978). Expressions of civic pride, public squares are generally typified by its accessibility, often dominated by a landmark or civic building (French, 1978). Their resulting high level of legibility increases the user base from local members of the community to include the wider public (Whyte, 1980).Thus creating a highly vibrant space conducive to social interaction (Whyte, 1980).

By contrast, less familiar with the average man is the concept of third place (Oldenburg, 1999, p. 15). Oldenburg observed that 'multitudes shuttle back and forth from the "womb "to the "rat race" in a constricted pattern of daily life that easily generates the desire to get away from it all' (Oldenburg, 1999, p. 9). It is this place of escape that he defines as the third place, while the first (womb) is the home and the second (rat race) is the workplace (Oldenburg, 1999, p. 9). This third place arises from the human need for a routine recreation space, which serves as an intermediary between the activities of living and working.() Although generally an interaction space for members of a local community, it exists in a variety of forms ranging from the more easily identifiable cafes, pubs, libraries; to the not so obvious independent traders such as barbershops and cybercafés (Oldenburg, 1999). Injecting such program within the urban fabric facilitates the notion of socio-cultural belonging (Jacobs, 1993). It serves as neutral ground for the emergence of conversation across demographic profiles, and thereby the birth of friendships based on the common ground of community (Oldenburg, 1999, p. 169).

This essay discusses in greater detail the characteristics of both the public square and the third place. It highlights the distinctions in the levels of social interaction that each of these spaces encourage. To illustrate these points this essay uses Hackney Central, London as a case study.

City lights and gleaming windows Built in to fantastic shapes Overlook sounds of Vietnam Viaducts and artist landscapes Historic clues, canals and terraces Hint of workers' struggle to survive Melting now into sound and colour, Sense the Caribbean come alive. Saturday debates in Kurdish cafes And shoppers choosing Turkish life. Mix with the sounds of synagogue To tell the stories of culture and belief. What we see is what we choose - Inner soul or shabby shell outside. Downtrodden, dirty dereliction or a lifetime learning in a 15 minute ride.

Gill Carter

The east end is a much loved and much fabled part of London and Hackney at the heart of it. Hackney Central its administrative headquarters today possesses a culturally diverse demographic, with 65% of its population constituted of minority ethnic groups (Hackney Council, 2009). As home to the iconic theatre The Hackney Empire and birthplace to thespian and musical greats such as Harold Pinter and Leona Lewis, Hackney is witnessing a significant influx of creative industries, as part of a spill-over from trendy neighbours Shoreditch and Hoxton (Sergius, 2009). The spotlight again is turning towards Hackney as it is located on the principal axis for development culminating at the 2012 Olympic site in Stratford (Hackney Council, 2009).

Despite its rich cultural heritage and promising future prospects, Hackney is still very much plagued by a reputation as being a deprived and unsafe neighbourhood, with a propensity to breed crime (Wikipedia, 2010). With these two conflicting views in mind, I visited Hackney for the first time.

The Square's two primary elements are gardens symmetrically laid out on either side of the central walkway on the east-west axis which continues on to the Town Hall entrance. The main-stream of visitors to the Square access it via this central walkway. The gardens are almost completely enclosed by a wall measuring approximately half a metre in height. Although it is unknown whether this was the initial design intention for the wall, its height is conducive for sitting and is often used accordingly by visitors to the Square in the absence of any alternative seating. Undoubtedly, this results from the human inclination to seek comfort, the accommodation of which should be a priority in the design of a successful square (Project for Public Spaces, 2009). Yet it may be observed that the use of the garden walls to satisfy this basic human inclination actually negatively impacts the social dynamics of the space.

In his studies of human interaction in plazas Whyte (Whyte, 1980, p. 227)observed that people exhibit a tendency to 'self congest', being attracted to spaces that are significantly occupied by other people.

This behaviour is socially motivated and logically has the potential to facilitate social interaction in public spaces. However, although visitors do self congest generally within the Hackney Town Hall Square, the aforementioned lack of specifically allocated seating areas causes them to do so haphazardly, clustering together and sitting in groups of acquaintances (Whyte, 1980, p. 227). This actually discourages social interaction between strangers, fragmenting the visiting population (Whyte, 1980, p. 227). Furthermore, the majority of seated visitors tend to sit either side of the mainstream of pedestrian flow, the central walkway (Whyte, 1980, p. 228). However, despite this prevalent self congestion, the walkway's significant width does not facilitate communication between users seated on opposing garden walls. Instead this layout encourages 'people-watching', as seated users watch passers-by along Mare Street and along the central walkway

Arguably the Square also attempts to encourage ground floor activity by housing mass-appealing attractions and facilities as the Library Cafe and Hackney Empire bar (Project for Public Spaces, 2009). However the positive effects of these venues are negated by the introduction of side streets Wilton Way and Reading Lane between the Square and both Hackney Empire and Library respectively. These two boundaries are connected by a service road in front of the Town Hall. This U-shaped enclosure discourages pedestrian movement as there is no clear indication as to whether pedestrian or motorist has right of way. This adversely affects the ambience of the Square by reducing the pedestrian footfall. Consequently, as the inclination of the individual to self congest prevails, pedestrians are attracted toward the dynamic buzz of Mare Street, and proceed to converse in the mainstream of its pedestrian flow (Whyte, 1980, p. 227). Thus the Square underperforms as a vehicle for social interaction and indeed performs less effectively than Mare Street.

The limitations that the layout of the Square places upon the scope of the social interactions within itself are apparent in the limited variety of visitors that the Square attracts (Whyte, 1980, p. 226). IMG_1886.JPG The Square's clear site lines and is easy access (as previously explained)are intended to broaden its portfolio of visitors from members of the local community to the wider public who may not be as knowledgeable of their local environs. Whyte (Whyte, 1980, p. 226) deduced from his observations that public square users usually have a short commute distance, usually from nearby places of work or are visitors to attractions on the square. Although it was not possible to verify the work place of all Town Square users, I did identify an influx of construction workers on a break from nearby works taking place on Morning Lane. I also observed that the majority of the users were visitors to the main attractions on the Square - the Hackney Library and the Hackney Empire.

Undeniably the location of a bay of bus stops along Mare Street east of the Square attributes to its function as an orientation space.

Hence we see that the Square mainly attracts users that are more likely to be non-residents of the area. Whether day tourists, theatre clientele or workers that may not necessarily be very familiar with the area, non-local users of the Square are more inclined to keep their social interaction within the confines of their group (Whyte, 1980, p. 227). Social interactions within the Square can therefore serve to largely exclude the local community and hence the Town Hall Square is limited in promoting social cohesion (Oldenburg, 1999, p. 14). It would indeed take a very vibrant Square to facilitate the rare occurrence of conversation between strangers (Whyte, 1980, p. 228), and this is clearly not the case with the Town hall Square. Owing to shortcomings in its layout, and lack of adequate sitting areas, the pedestrian footfall does not achieve its potential capacity. Arguably, The Town Hall Square therefore serves more efficiently as a lobby for visitors to Hackney Central. Its function to the visitor is adaptable certainly. It can serve as an orientation space from which the rest of Mare Street may be articulated, as a resting place for visitors to nearby attractions or indeed a meeting place for friends before an evening outing (Whyte, 1980). However, what it fails to do is encourage interaction between the local community and tourists (Oldenburg, 1999, pp. 10-11). The Square in announcing all that Hackney Central holds dear neglects its greatest asset - its people.

The people of Hackney Central are unique to their London context in that they exist as a close-knit community. This is no doubt as a result of the proliferation of the third place in the local neighbourhood (Oldenburg, 1999, p. 162). Greasy Spoon Cafe's, barbershops and pubs make up the fabric of Hackney Central. These independent traders line the main routes through the district; Graham Road, Amherst Road, Morning Lane with their greatest concentration on Narrow Lane.

Walking up Narrow Lane the bustling street showcased wares and cuisine from all over the world converging in a unique communal existence in Hackney Central. I began to understand with greater clarity the nature of the neighbourhood that poet Gill Carter described when she spoke of ;

'debates in Kurdish cafes...telling stories of culture and belief.'(Op Cit)

It is in these spaces described by Carter that the people of Hackney Central seek respite from the monotony of daily work and home life (Oldenburg, 1999, p. 163). There is a fundamental need for people to enjoy the company of neighbours on neutral ground, however neutral ground outside the cash nexus is preferred (Oldenburg, 1999, p. 13).Thus, the emergence of St John Churchyard Gardens as the primary third place in Hackney Central.

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The St. John Churchyard Gardens is a large expanse of urban green that runs parallel to Narrow Lane. A park green of such significant size usually has a high propensity to develop in to an urban vacuum, as it requires a lot of activity in order for it to remain convivial (Jacobs, 1993). However, despite this disadvantage the Park works quite effectively as a public space. The park has a homely quality to it that does not exclude any particular member of the community.() Its weathered grave stones and worn flagstones give it a lived-in feel, hence it is perceived as a more informal public space - an extension of the local users' homes. These are all qualities highlighted by Oldenburg in his argument for the third place (Oldenburg, 1999, pp. 163-169)

Again in line with observations by Jane Jacobs in her studies of American neighbourhoods, the park's rim is articulated with a zone of dense mixed use program varying from residential to retail, which encourages a significant pedestrian footfall (Jacobs, 1993). It may also be observed that the park as a whole, although of considerable size, is in essence a collective of several green spaces, each with its own focal point.

CHURCH.jpg his.jpgFirst is the garden in the forecourt of the St John's Church, which is a lobby space for the Church with clearly designated seating areas. Second is the Walled Garden, this enclosed space provides an intimate and safe area for young families to use the designated playground. Third is the central park green, where the routes converge (Jacobs, 1993, p. 136). Finally, fourth is what I refer to as the Historical green, so called because it serves as the foreground to historical landmarks St Augustine's tower, the old town hall and 'the preachers corner.' This subdivision of the park in to four smaller gardens reduces the perceived circumference of enclosure. This promotes self congestion as, users of the park can asses their level of comfort based on the congestion level of the garden that they are in at any one particular time.

his.jpgAnother advantage posed by creating varied functions for the different gardens, is that the user base is varied. A heterogeneous user base helps to keep the park active at different times throughout the day (Oldenburg, 1999, p. 167). This user base is thereby structured into subcategories of users who share common ground (Oldenburg, 1999, p. 164). For instance a high proportion of the walled garden's users tend to be young mothers with their children using the play ground areas. Their children serve as icebreakers as the mothers sit in the allocated adult supervision area and share anecdotes on childcare and child's play.

Never delving too deep in to their private lives, these friendships amongst the parents are groomed until the children are mature enough to conduct their own excursions to the park (Oldenburg, 1999, p. 166). Similarly the elderly and indigent folk congregate in the historical green, waiting to hear the assertions of whoever decides to lead the sermon on 'preacher's corner', hoping of course to offer their own pearls of wisdom (Jacobs, 1993).

The possibility of encountering a familiar friendly face, for a helping of entertaining conversation, transporting you if only momentarily from the mundanity of daily living, according to Oldenburg is one of the greatest allures of the third place (Oldenburg, 1999, p. 167). Indeed users are more inclined to use the park as they are assured that it will be accessible at any hour during the day and the specific subcategory of user has an idea of when to catch a particular 'crowd' at the park (Oldenburg, 1999, p. 167). Whether young mothers, street preachers, early morning joggers or even the lunch breakers, each category of user has a specific pattern of time and location (Oldenburg, 1999).

The charm of the St John's Garden as third place is in no way exclusive to the local user, it also appeals to the day tourist (Oldenburg, 1999, p. 167). Its unassuming appearance inspires the reminiscent, instilling a confidence created by the feeling of having visited a place a number of times, but in reality no times at all. ()Its well lived-in look, clear paths and colourful characters awaken the inner explorer in a bid to discover the true nature of Hackney Central (Oldenburg, 1999, p. 168). Even 'the regulars' submit themselves to be explored (Oldenburg, 1999, p. 167).

In fact it was while visiting the historical green on my photographic excursion of the district that I would garner firsthand this most bizarre of experiences. I was trying to set up the perfect angle for a shot of the St Augustine's tower, when a gentleman's voice from behind me suggested that I move back and angle my camera closer to the ground, in order to capture the grandeur of the tower. As is customary British politesse, I smiled sweetly said nothing in response and instead turned back to my assignment, whilst seemingly taking on board some of his suggestions. He clarified that he was a cinematographer, although his appearance would infer otherwise. He then elaborated on a plethora of other principles that I should take in to account such as the rule of thirds.

This tutorial would slowly melt in to a brief summation on what had brought our paths to cross. I spoke briefly of my university assignment and career aspirations. He recounted stories from his past, and what he had hoped then for his future, all the time using Hackney Central as the backdrop to his tales. ­

Now I must clarify that this would not be the first time I have ever had a polite conversation, what was unique to this encounter was the manner in which this gentleman approached me. He was warm and welcoming, to what he had obviously assumed as his territory (Oldenburg, 1999, p. 167). He moved towards me, and by reducing the radius of personal space he required more than just a smile, his intentions were to engage me in a conversation (Oldenburg, 1999, p. 167). Having lived in central London for a number of years, I had become accustomed to averting eye contact and maintaining a guarded silence even in the most uncompromising confines of the tube during rush hour. Yet I would encounter this bizarre urban behaviour repeatedly throughout my tour of the third place.

Evidently, the St John's Gardens as a third place serves as a vehicle of social cohesion as it is inclusive of visitors from all backgrounds, encouraging social participation on a plateau of social equality (Oldenburg, 1999, p. 169). Its location opposite to the train station, parallel to commercial Narrow Lane and residential areas ensures that it is easily accessible to both locals and tourists thus creating potential for encounters between the two groups (Oldenburg, 1999, p. 166). The absence of commercial function and its unpretentious physical structure, ensures that people of modest means feel comfortable to use the space (Oldenburg, 1999, p. 168). This further widens the scope of its user base to include the indigent - a significant proportion of the districts' population (Oldenburg, 1999, p. 168).

To the tourist the park reveals the true nature of Hackney Central, showing its historical heritage, its cultural and socio-economic diversity and moral views all in a day's visit. Admittedly, as with most third places, (depending on the sensibility of the tourist) St John's gardens aesthetic quality and its eclectic selection of regulars may prove daunting (Oldenburg, 1999, p. 168). They would rather a public space void of character that showcases all the exploits of a consumer society (Whyte, 1980)(. The elegant architecture of the Hackney library and recognisable global franchises such as Subway, situated around the Town Hall Square cater to such needs. Conversely, this constricts the user base to exclude to a large extent the average resident of the district.

Thus, I refer to my initial question, if the priority of urban design is making places for people, should we not be encouraging effective social interaction in order to establish social cohesion and par venture should the promotion of third place not be our goal? However a district operates similar manner to a city, hence is governed by similar rules. Consequently (as earlier stated) the district needs to maintain economic relevance to its wider context, whilst addressing the socio-economic needs of its inhabitants.

Hence, I conclude. It would seem that there is argument for the role of both the third place and the public square in facilitating social cohesion. The third place acts directly as the vehicle for social cohesion by keeping the community together and preserving its identity. Conversely, the public square acts indirectly by catering for the tourist, thereby maintaining the districts' economic relevance to its wider context. In so doing, it makes it economically viable for a community such as in Hackney Central to even exist.


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  • Lynch. (1990). City Sense and City Design. Massachussets: MIT Press.
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  • Carmona et al Public Places Urban Spaces
  • Jane Jacobs The Economy of Cities
  • Jane Jacobs The death and life of American Cities
  • Ray Oldenburg The Great Good Old Place
  • Tridib Banerjee Beyond the Neighbourhood Unit
  • Lynch et al City Sense and city design
  • William Whyte The Social Logic of Small Places
  • Jere Stuart French Urban Space: A brief history of the City Space
  • Adisa et al Hackney my Hackney: An Anthology of Poems and Photographs
  • Lil Smith The Good Old Bad Days


Tridib Banerjee Urban Experience and the development of city image:

A Study in Environmental Perception and Learning

Hackney Council Local Development Framework: Draft Interim Hackney Central Area Action Plan Phase 1 - Masterplan


  • http://www.areasoflondon.com/hackney.html
  • http://www.stjohnathackney.org.uk/
  • http://www.hackney.gov.uk/


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