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Return to the Center

Return to the Center
Culture, Public Space, and City-Building in a Global Era

A groundbreaking look at what cities built in the Hispanic tradition can teach us about effectively using central public spaces to foster civic interaction, neighborhood identity, and a sense of place.

Series: Roger Fullington Endowment in Architecture, Roger Fullington Series in Architecture

April 2006
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299 pages | 6 x 9 | 67 b&w photos, 5 maps |

The redesign and revitalization of traditional urban centers is the cutting edge of contemporary urban planning, as evidenced by the intense public and professional attention to the rebuilding of city cores from Berlin to New York City's "Ground Zero." Spanish and Latin American cities have never received the recognition they deserve in the urban revitalization debate, yet they offer a very relevant model for this "return to the center." These cultures have consistently embraced the notion of a city whose identity is grounded in its organic public spaces: plazas, promenades, commercial streets, and parks that invite pedestrian traffic and support a rich civic life. This groundbreaking book explores Spanish, Mexican, and Mexican-American border cities to learn what these urban areas can teach us about effectively using central public spaces to foster civic interaction, neighborhood identity, and a sense of place.

Herzog weaves the book around case studies of Madrid and Barcelona, Spain; Mexico City and Querétaro, Mexico; and the Tijuana-San Diego border metropolis. He examines how each of these urban areas was formed and grew through time, with attention to the design lessons of key public spaces. The book offers original and incisive discussions that challenge current urban thinking about politics and public space, globalization, and the future of privatized communities, from gated suburbs to cyberspace. Herzog argues that well-designed, human-scaled city centers are still vitally necessary for maintaining community and civic life. Applicable to urban renewal projects around the globe, Herzog's book will be important reading for planners, architects, designers, and all citizens interested in creating more livable cities.

  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter 1. Culture, Public Space, and Cities
  • Chapter 2. The City and Public Space in Spain
  • Chapter 3. Modernity and Public Space in Crisis: Contemporary Madrid
  • Chapter 4. "City of Architects": Public Space and the Resurgence of Barcelona
  • Chapter 5. Spain Meets Mesoamerica: The City and Public Space in Mexico
  • Chapter 6. Revitalizing Historic Centers in Urban Mexico: Politics and Public Space
  • Chapter 7. The Globalization of Urban Form: Transcultural Public Spaces along the Mexico-United States International Border
  • Chapter 8. Return to the Center? Politics, Latino Culture, and Public Space
  • Notes
  • References

Lawrence A. Herzog is Professor in the Graduate Program in City Planning of the School of Public Administration and Urban Studies at San Diego State University in California.


Had I but plenty of money,
money enough to spare
the house for me, no doubt,
were a house in the city square.
Ah, such a life, such a life,
as one leads at the window there.


Robert Browning, "Up at a Villa Down in the City," Men and Women


Every new century begins with a kind of soul-searching. As North Americans, the entrée into the twenty-first century compels us to confront the critical place where most of us live—the metropolis. Several broad trends that ushered the close of the last century—globalization, privatization, and simulation—will continue to define the debates about urban form and function in the new millennium. The increasing globalization of urban development decisions raises concerns about the loss of local control over urban design. The continuing shift toward the privatization of urban space suggests that the already diminished importance of "public interest" in city planning may be further weakened. Meanwhile, the digital revolution has had a huge impact on the daily life of urban citizens, implying even greater distancing from the physical space of the city, from its design, and from previous historic eras that emphasized the creation of livable spaces for pedestrians. The postindustrial age has brought a new practice to the making of urban landscapes: the creation of artificial or simulated spaces—shopping malls, festival pavilions, video arcades—as the primary places where urban dwellers meet. The computer and its spin-off technologies, such as the Internet, pose radically different forms of urban interaction—cybercommunities and Internet cafés, for example.


Some urbanists have come to accept these changes by theorizing that they are logical outcomes for the postindustrial society that America has become. Writers claim, for example, that current trends were set in the nineteenth century, with the building of the first suburban towns, which initially appeared as well designed "garden cities." They argue that America evolved as a frenzied, entrepreneurial nation of people who preferred fast transit and suburban houses with backyards. Dispersed morphologies were therefore inevitable, a product of American inventiveness in creating the technological means (highways, automobiles) to use peripheral locations. Others argue that these trends are part and parcel of the shift in American urbanism toward a postmodern condition, caused by the changing nature of urban economies, social dynamics, culture and spatial form. Still others celebrate the advantages of virtual communities and cyberspace.


Postmodernity in urbanism came into its own in the 1990s. Postmodernists brilliantly captured the essence of American cities at the close of the millennium—from the dispersed islands of gated communities to "edge cities," spaces built by global investors. They argued that these new trends called for a different set of filters through which to understand the new urbanism. Postmodern theory, they offered, emphasized multiple rather than singular ways of seeing the city, diversity as opposed to homogeneity, and local governance rather than centralized authority. Postmodernity transcended the limitations of modernist planning, which had failed to embrace the political complexity of urban life in the twentieth century. Postmodernists were critical of an increasingly privatized planning process that favored a "user pay" mentality and greater roles for private consultants, lobbyists, or public relation firms in urban planning, in the midst of increasing corporate interests in the education process.


Yet, postmodern analyses of the city still leave us with a vacuum. Postmodern theory may help us understand how to critically view the urban condition. But what do postmodernists offer as solutions to the urban crisis? In one of the best works on the subject, case studies are drawn from Las Vegas, Tijuana, Mexico, and the Hollywood film industry. Are these prototypes of where cities should be heading? Where are the innovative design visions of the urban future? Where are the great twenty-first-century urbanists to replace Lewis Mumford or Daniel Burnham? What paradigms of urban design and planning will flourish in the new millennium?


In the spirit of the ancient Greek skeptikos, one wonders whether postmodern interpretations of the city should be accepted as inevitable. At the same time, we ought not imagine a romantic return to the preindustrial city—the medieval fortress town, or the Baroque streetscape. Neither should we pretend American cities will ever have the density and historic traditions of European urban centers. However, there is a clear need for an alternative vision of American urban space, one that embraces the traditions that defined America's urban evolution, while incorporating the best elements of inherited European urbanism. I believe those elements have lingered on the edges of our urban experience, but for political and historical reasons we have ignored them. Further, I would argue that the connection to Europe for American urbanism lies south of the border at the gateway to our Latin neighbors—that is, it lies in Mexico, and in Mexico's connection to Europe through Spain.


Mexico has been an intimate part of North American urbanism beginning with the early settlement of this continent, although our history books and our scholarship do not always recognize this. Pre-Columbian cities were the first planned settlements of North America. Mexico's modern connection to the United States is driven by its geographical proximity, and by the millions of Latino immigrants who helped shape the regional economy of the southwestern United States and who increasingly populate much of the continent today. Mexico's urbanism was shaped by indigenous forces, but the greatest influence on city building was exerted by Spain, which colonized and built most of urban Mexico over the three centuries from 1500 to 1800.


One of the central elements of Latin city building has been public space—town squares, plazas, markets, gardens, courtyards, and commercial streets. These elements have been important not only as physical design markers that anchor urban space but also as cultural and political forces that suggest a way of thinking about urban life, and about the trade-offs between private rights and the public interest. Using the experiences of Spain and Mexico as filters, I will argue in this book for an urban design perspective that embraces the value of public space in American urbanism. Further, I will contend that politicians and policy makers need to make the creation and preservation of public space a much higher priority in planning for redevelopment and growth in the American metropolis of the twenty-first century.


This book is organized as a set of studies of the politics of public space and urban change in two Spanish-speaking regions of the world—Spain and Mexico. As I suggest above, the role of Spanish and Latino culture in American urbanism must be better understood. Mexico is an essential part of North America, both as a neighboring nation to the United States and as the largest contributor to its immigrant community. Moreover, Mexico is one of the United States' key trade partners, under the NAFTA agreement. This partnership guarantees a future of increasing Mexico-U.S. economic, cultural, and environmental integration. Americans need to know more about the cultural dimensions of Mexican urbanism as part of their understanding of urban space in North America; among other things, this will help strengthen the commitment to public space in the planning of U.S. metropolitan areas.


Contemporary Urbanism and Public Space


A salient feature of contemporary American urbanism is the fact that basic forms of public space—pedestrian streets, squares, plazas, promenades—are rapidly becoming either obsolete or unrecognizable. Most scholars generally agree that as the city has shifted from an era of decentralization to one of "despatialization," public life is reconfiguring itself in very different forms. Speaking of "cyburbia," and the "end of public space," one author contends that it is not that buildings or places are absent from the city fabric, but that the spaces in between are missing. Traditional public spaces have lost their attraction, if not their role, in American cities.


We have entered an era in which the city as a physical place is being deconstructed into an array of forms that conform to the postmodern, antigeographical needs of a global society. Urban dwellers still travel through space, but they are increasingly less aware or less dependent on noticing its content. Today, it is often only the spectacular spaces, the places with images that mirror those in the electronic space of television, that remain in the mental maps of urban dwellers. Technology buffers urbanites from real space, both for reasons of global marketing and security. The result is that people are mainly engaged by public spaces that simulate something, rather than those that are historically or culturally embedded in the urban fabric. Contemporary urbanism—a world of shopping malls, skyways (aboveground street networks between tall buildings), freeways, TV screens, historic districts created by local chambers of commerce, and high-tech exurbs like Silicon Valley—has become ephemeral.


Yet, even as the traditional fabric of cities fragments into a mosaic of serviceable techno-residential suburbs and functional economic districts, the demand for public life remains high. This demand is expressed in the form of some 30,000 shopping malls in urban America, or by the proliferation of festival marketplaces, regional fairs, parks, theme parks, and other forms of public entertainment. Are these disparate spaces the only alternatives we have left to construct a public life in our cities in the twenty-first century? Are they the last building blocks we have to create livable inner-city communities? It is my contention that we can better respond to these questions by taking a detour through the public spaces of two urban cultures, Mexico and Spain.


As one explores the public spaces of Spain and Mexico, inevitably the historic importance of a specific form of public space—the plaza—must be confronted. "La plaza" is an indigenous element of Mediterranean urbanism. It was imposed forcibly on Mexico (and the rest of Latin America) either through oligarchic precolonial societies or via the colonial Spanish imperial political system. The etymology of the word plaza is worth considering: its origins lie in the ancient Latin word platea, which referred to a broad way or open space. By the medieval period, the Latin word had evolved to placea, or in Middle English plaece. Today the word place is commonly understood to refer to "a particular part of space, of defined or undefined extent, but of definite situation," but that definition is listed as only the third most important in the Oxford English Dictionary; the first definition given is "an open space in a city, a square or marketplace."


This implies that the first openings in the fabric of cities—dating back at least to ancient Greek and Roman cities, and to the early medieval period—the first sites where the street grid gave way to some form of open space (probably a marketplace or gathering place), became the spaces that would distinguish one subarea from another within a city, the spaces that gave urban districts their original identity. In the twentieth century, the term place became a generic word used to distinguish one part of the urban fabric from another; it appears that this distinguishing element began as a public plaza.


Cities and the Sense of Place


One category of work in planning and urban design in the second half of the twentieth century involved the search for ways to rescue the "sense of place" in cities, since this treasured quality was being eclipsed by technological change. Some urban design scholars sought to analyze the physical and symbolic landscape cues that make cities more understandable to residents. One popular approach identified five defining structural elements, three of which define urban places (the district, the landmark, the node), one that frames their boundaries (the edge), and one that defines the experience of moving through them (the path). Indeed, the field of environmental psychology tries to capture the experience of place and find uniform ways of measuring it (cognitive mapping, for example). More recently, the field of environmental simulation has utilized technology to simulate unique places for the purposes of preserving them in the midst of urban development.


But "sense of place" is, at best, a vague notion, difficult to measure, and highly subjective. Yet, seemingly everyone would agree that cities with meaningful spaces are more stimulating than those that are homogeneous. One can point to the importance of individual sensibility as a factor in creating a sense of place. Two states of mind have been suggested for city dwellers. "Ordinary perception" is the stream of consciousness that shuts out place and surroundings; it is the conscious state of typical city residents during their daily routines of moving around the city. On the other hand, "simultaneous perception" is a way of taking in one's surroundings and experiencing a place more completely. The latter tends mainly to occur in the places with the richest built environment, such as a glittery theater district or a beautiful landscape. A goal of urban designers should be to create urban spaces where users are jolted out of their ordinary state of perception into a state of simultaneous experience of the urban landscape.


History is one of the central pillars upon which sense of place is based. Cities are cascaded sets of landscapes created at different moments of history. The strongest sense of place may thus occur in places that are able to preserve these different layers. But culture may also play a role. For example, the built environment of a non-Western city like Tokyo enhances the perception of place. The Western system of street addresses and gridded street layouts would be useless there. Most streets are nameless and individual houses do not have marked addresses. To become oriented in Tokyo, one must learn the ethnography of the city, by walking its streets, by talking with people—that is, by experiencing it, and learning its contents through habitual exposure. The meaning of urban space shifted from the medieval period, when it was a means for promotion of human contact, to the Renaissance, when it conveyed aesthetic beauty, to the industrial period, when space lost earlier meanings and became merely a domain for circulation.


Indeed, a pivotal shift in the field of urban design occurred in the early 1970s, with the advent of postmodern design theory, which imagined new meanings for urban space. During the 1960s, critics of modernist cities argued that skyscrapers and freeways were destroying the sense of place in the city. A decade later, a highly publicized book on Las Vegas argued that traditional notions of space and place were not the only means to achieve exciting landscapes. Perhaps urbanists, the authors argued, were too obsessed with traditional enclosed spaces (like the Italian piazza), and too quick to dismiss the virtues of the highway and even of urban sprawl. For example, the urban highway strip was embellished with signs and symbols that creatively sculpted a new urban tableau tuned to the scale and needs of the automobile. Urban space and time boundaries were being redefined, moving the urban experience out of the ordered, hierarchical grid of modernism to a more anarchic, chaotic, inventive postmodern urban structure.


Time, Public Space, and Urban Social Tension


Change in the nature of public places can be tracked across time and through different political contexts. The two defining eras are the preindustrial period and the industrial/modern period (the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries). The transition from the former to the latter led to a crisis of public space.


Preindustrial cities have been characterized as having an "appearential order," a system where strangers identified one another based on visual appearance—clothing, hairstyle, and so forth. Public spaces had multiple functions—water collection, news gathering, political expression. Daily use of public space brought strangers together in a space where appearance defined order. In industrial cities, the new order was "spatial"; territory became conditioned by social class. Strangers were defined in public space—their social rank indicated which zones of the city they could travel in. During the industrial era, urban property was defended with zoning laws; public space was managed by municipal codes, which prevented homeless citizens from loitering or sleeping in certain public areas. These laws created bizarre forms of order in public space; for example, in 1920s London a vast army of poor, homeless men were not allowed to remain for any length of time in any public space—local municipal codes literally kept them moving until 6 p.m., when charitable lodging houses opened for the evening. But even then, the homeless were allowed to stay for only one night, and then put back on the streets. This kind of behavior made public spaces places of tension in the modern era, a world where urban strangers find it increasingly difficult to cope with one another.


One scholarly history of civic life argues that urban public space reached its height in the seventeenth century, began its decline in the eighteenth century, and has come crashing down ever since. Public space, in the post-Renaissance centuries, was theater—a place where personal identity was acted out in civic locales. In European cities public plazas were the spaces where citizens experienced their identity by engaging in politics, entertainment, or social gossip. The gradual decline of urban public life unfolded in three stages. First, in the late eighteenth century egocentric public places were created to celebrate kings and royal families, or to provide privatized squares for the rich. Public life also moved indoors, to cafés and theaters, or it shifted toward the isolation of the new parks. Second, in the nineteenth century people began to turn inward and obsess with self and personality, while public life became passive rather than active. Urban dwellers preferred to be spectators, for example, by sitting in cafés and looking out at the city. Third, public life significantly declined in the twentieth century; people failed to find meaning in increasingly alien public places and retreated further into the family space. They saw little chance for active public lives and further retreated into private spaces by the lure of electronic communication and entertainment in their homes and offices.


This transformation of city life from public to private, between the seventeenth and the twentieth centuries, still left open the question for contemporary urban policy makers: what role should public spaces play within the metropolis? Several schools of thought emerged in the second half of the twentieth century. On one side were those who defended public life and the model of the pedestrian city. They attacked the failures of modernist freeway cities and called for more high-density urban places like New York City. Their arguments were based on ethnographic observations of the quality of life associated with high-density streets and sidewalks, which they saw as the vital spaces of the modern city.


By the 1980s, however, others argued that the sheer force of technology, particularly communications technology, makes it less possible to plan for pedestrian-oriented cities. They believe the nostalgia for European-like cities is misplaced in the United States, a society of individual-oriented living spaces, where public life can be experienced in "virtual spaces," such as interactive media, radio talk shows, and cable television. Futurist urbanists cast shopping malls as the new downtown business districts, and the new public spaces of contemporary North America. They argue that since the format has caught on, developers and merchandisers will now become more innovative in making the shopping malls respond to the larger public life needs (recreation, public discourse) of city dwellers. Yet, many are critical of such a view, noting that such retail environments are artificial public spaces, in that they are controlled by private capital and principally designed for marketing and not for residence.


It is possible to imagine two forms of public space: first, as a physical, material form, say a town square, with actual physical dimensions, and an architectural form. But that space is more than simply a physical space, it has a second form—a historically determined and politically created context. The town square can symbolize a democratic society, one in which people can freely gather in public spaces, as opposed to say a totalitarian society, where access to those spaces is highly controlled, and where certain behaviors are disallowed. This second form of space may be the most crucial to defend, since reliance on private interests for access to gathering spaces in the public sphere may end up being dangerous to a free society.


Culture and Public Space


There is little question that the contemporary city is facing an urban design crisis wrapped in a larger social dilemma: how to reinvent an urban public life that promotes a sense of community and a feeling of identity with the urban environment? One critical dimension of this dilemma has not received the attention it deserves—the role of culture.


There is a strong culturally derived theme of antiurbanism embedded in American urban life. Its roots lie in the nation's history, but its expression appears in both subtle and less subtle antiurban messages and subtexts that permeate contemporary urban life. For example, the print and visual media tend to portray the urban street as a negative place. Such terms as "street person" imply that the street is a dangerous locale, as opposed to the safe nested environment of privatized space like a shopping mall. Ironically, in much of the world, especially in the Mediterranean region, writers, designers, and urban dwellers view the street as "the river of life in the city." Yet, the American mass media often project an antiurban message: the street is the space where spectacular and dangerous events unfold. But not everyone accepts this. It has been observed, for example, that although the public may perceive homeless people as "undesirables," most members of this population segment are typically not dangerous, and can make positive contributions to urban life.


Nonetheless, streets are dominated by narratives that define them as stages for gang activity or other threatening behaviors. Streets and open spaces encapsulate the public's "fear of crime" in contemporary American culture. They have increasingly been portrayed in American culture as "mean streets." This perception has undoubtedly contributed to the growing privatization of space in American cities, the walling off of people into secure consumer spaces and gated residential communities. Underlying these changes may be an emerging, deep-seated cultural fear of strangers.


The cultural/historical strain of antiurbanism in the United States is distinguished by an especially hostile view of informal public life. Other world cultures have signature "third places"—public gathering sites that have become celebrated cultural icons—for example, the Spanish plaza, the English pub, the French café, the Viennese coffeehouse, or the German beer garden. But such places are disappearing in American urban culture. In their place the private home has become the dominant place of gathering.


This antiurban bias in U.S. culture reveals itself in the American attitude toward parks and green spaces in cities. In Europe parks evolved as part of a collective way to design convivial, community spaces for leisure. The English "pleasure garden," for example, was part of a movement to invent innovative places for such purposes. These included promenades, shopping streets, or town squares. The idea was that the city was a microcosm of the world. This was the intention of early park designers in the United States, such as Frederick Law Olmsted. Yet, in the end, a more antiurban view of parks has prevailed, one in which they are seen as an escape from the evil of cities, even an escape to the country.


Historically, the connection between public space and place, can be traced to the public plaza, whose evolution over the centuries reveals varying cultural expressions at different points in time of the need for public life in cities. It is generally agreed that the first important urban societies—in India, Mesopotamia, and Egypt—did not utilize the public square as part of the design and social fabric of their settlements. The first significant urban public places were found in ancient Greek cities, specifically in the form of the "agora," the civic embodiment of political life. The agora was a place of assembly, at first for political gatherings, and later as a location for the Greek market. While the "acropolis"—the sacred, religious locale—was walled and closed off, the agora was an open, accessible space, and was seen as the symbol of the "polis," the locus of self-government of early Greek democratic city-states. At its best, the agora was a rallying point for speech and open-air citizens' meetings. In fact, the agora's origins are said to trace back to the practice of Greek warriors gathering in a circle periodically to discuss matters of common concern. The circle became a place of free speech. "Agora" meant assembly. As one scholar noted: "[B]y having access to this circular space known as the agora, citizens became part of a political system based on balance, symmetry, reciprocity."


In its earliest form, around the sixth century BC, the agora was said to be an open-air space, spontaneous and richly adorned with public life. In the later Greek/Hellenistic period, after the third century BC, Greek cities were more ordered, and the agoras were rectangular in shape, surrounded by buildings and closed off to traffic. This signified a less spontaneous and rich public life. As fancy gates and porticoes began to appear around the agoras, and as traffic was shut out, they reflected the weakening of collective power, and a corresponding decline of the Greek city-state.


If the agora symbolized democracy in ancient Greek city-states, the Roman forum stood for power. The forum, in fact, is said to have evolved from the morphology of Etruscan towns and later Roman military encampments, where the geographical center was the axis of power. In Roman cities the main streets (cardo and decumanus) crossed here, and the most important institutions and buildings were on this central site (especially the "basilica," or combined court of justice and market hall).


The Roman model of urban form emphasized the creation of a central space—limited in size to give it more meaning. It is not surprising that the forum, or town square, was born along the Mediterranean, considering the degree to which both Greek and Roman urbanism embraced it. There is evidence that, aside from its origins as a space of power, the forum played many roles in Roman cities: as a site of commerce, political discourse, the administration of justice, and dissemination of news. Commerce occurred around the forum in the market halls of the basilica. Shops were set up on the forum to teach language and rhetoric as part of commercial life, while the central storerooms for weights and measures were also located here. There were public-speaking daises on the Roman squares for engaging in political discussion. Public controversy could be aired here; its resolution might then move into the halls of the basilica. Meanwhile, much information was dispensed in the forum: election posters, sale contracts, wills, adoption notices. It was, in short, a media center.


The idea of a town square, as developed in Greece and Rome, began to assert itself in the medieval towns of Europe, and would find specific, more elaborate expressions in the Renaissance period. From the ninth to the thirteenth centuries, European towns were either concentrated, walled spaces built around castles and monasteries, or fortress compounds (such as the French bastide). Within these towns of crowded, crooked, and narrow streets, the plaza or square was a space that organically appeared to facilitate certain functions: the gathering of water, the collection of church taxes, buying and selling goods, exchanging information, or entertaining. Many of the early squares were market squares, and typically they formed outside the walls of the town, at the gate. While market squares were the most common form of medieval plaza, there were also spaces that formed in front of churches or town halls, which were used for either celebrations (tournaments, processions, etc.) or civic purposes (judicial proceedings). Limited technology forced the public into medieval squares on a daily basis, and a sense of collective destiny and community prevailed in public life. After the Middle Ages, some public life would move from the plaza to the indoor world of theaters, cafés, stores, or the royal court.


The Renaissance period, particularly in Italy, formalized the design of the town square. The Renaissance brought the discovery of perspective, scale, and proportion to the design of the Italian piazza. One is struck by the sense of order and uniformity that accompanies the arcade-enclosed squares of the sixteenth century in Italy. Some have suggested that the conscious, formal designs of the period mark the beginning of city planning, expressed through a connection between design and power. In any case, the pure geometric forms of the 1500s gave way to ornate, theatric piazzas in the Baroque period that followed. The squares became showpieces for royal families; the superiority of royal power was expressed through architecture that was both monumental and beautiful. The piazzas of Rome, especially those designed by Bernini, typify the theatricality of the Baroque era. This "academic classicism" is repeated in the plazas of seventeenth-century France, and it later inspired designs of public spaces in another great European city of the time, London.


The plaza was born and nurtured along the Mediterranean—in Greece, Italy, Spain, and later France. After labyrinthine streets and medieval towns, the plaza was embraced—as part of a higher, cosmic order—by the royal families of the Renaissance and Baroque eras. In Versailles in 1700 the royal architects found the ideal design of space, in which a town, palace, and gardens could be woven together into an abstract construction of power. The plazas of Renaissance and Baroque Italy, France, and Spain became monumental spaces of royal control. They set the tone for plazas built all over Europe as late as the beginning of the nineteenth century—from Trafalgar Square in London to Red Square in Moscow.


But, as one author wrote, "as progress spread, the piazza died." By the nineteenth century, as the industrial revolution began to restructure urban space, traditional public spaces dramatically changed. Some were simply abandoned; others would play different roles in the changing ecology of the modern city. With the emergence of stores and storefront design as part of the urban landscape, strolling along streets became a new kind of public experience, and commercial street corridors begin to replace the town square as the gathering spaces of an industrializing society.


While these changes were transforming the grand traditions of public space in Europe, in the United States the industrial revolution arrived in a nation with a very young urban design legacy. The pioneers who settled the United States had brought the memory of European public spaces, and these found expressions in the colonial era in the form of fenced grazing areas or "commons" in the middle of New England towns, military parade grounds, or church squares. As American cities formed at the end of the eighteenth century, and through the nineteenth century, it was clear that private land speculation, rather than civic planning, was the driving force. For the immigrant population streets, rather than squares, became the dominant public areas of urban life. By the second half of the nineteenth century parks were where people enjoyed leisure in the city, drawing on the new trend of the beer garden and pleasure grounds of cosmopolitan Europe. The idea of the park as a work of art and as an urban social outlet flourished through the design and promotion of the ideas and park designs of Frederick Law Olmsted and his colleagues.


These parks meant that while an urban citizen could find a pleasant experience with nature, public squares where people met spontaneously and interacted would be absent from most U.S. cities. As a result, there are few truly monumental open-air public squares in the United States. This fact does not necessarily bother American designers today. Indeed, one writer's comment about U.S. architects probably sums up the opinion of many: "[A]rchitects have been bewitched by a single element in the Italian landscape: the piazza. . . . They have been brought up on space, and enclosed space is easiest to handle." It has been argued that centralized public space does not constitute part of the American form of "psychosocial expression"—individual, freestanding buildings at reduced densities, rather than collective spaces in high-density settings. Privatized gathering space as opposed to community space is stronger in the United States than in Europe or Spanish America.


Yet, it may be that the urban plaza is misunderstood in the United States because it is seen as a physical environment or stage set, rather than a metaphor for playing out individual and community relations, as well as manifesting the local social order in space. Thus, there is a need for spaces where the role of individuals in the community can be made visible. It may not take the form of a pure public square, but it needs an expression in the urban built environment.


These ideas have been put to work in the fervent decade of public space revival that evolved in the United States during the 1980s and 1990s. In one study of the design and uses of public space in New York City, rigorous field observation and measurements were used to determine specific strategies for making public spaces function even in a high-density metropolitan setting. Meanwhile, landscape architects and urban designers began to look at public spaces more carefully. Some argued for better control and management of these public plazas; others suggested studying not only the public spaces but also their relation to immediate surrounding land uses. Many different kinds of public spaces were carefully analyzed, including miniparks, "vest pocket" parks, neighborhood parks, college campus spaces, and day care spaces.


Absent a richer historic tradition, the emphasis in the United States has been on innovative public spaces. For example, in large urban centers, like New York City, new plazas were created around corporate buildings, like IBM, Seagram's, and the Chase Manhattan headquarters. Equally, new public spaces were connected to large-scale civic development projects, like Lincoln Center. There are few well-preserved historic plazas in New York City—perhaps Rockefeller Plaza, completed during the Depression years, is an exception. Many believe that public space can continue to thrive because it provides stimulation to users; a sense of belonging, discovery, and meaning; a symbolic connection to the larger society; and a sense of the local character of place. How these elements can be collectively preserved in cities remains one of the important tasks for public space planning in twenty-first-century America.




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