In ancient Greek, the word “agora” is hard to translate. In Homer it could imply a “gathering” or “assembly”; by the time of Thucydides it had come to connote the public center of a city, the place around which the rest of the city was arranged, where business and politics were conducted in public—the place without which Greeks did not really regard a town or city as a town or city at all. The agora symbolized civil justice; it was organic, changeable, urbane. Even as government moved indoors and the agora evolved over time into the Roman forum, a grander, more formal place, the notion of the public square as the soul of urban life remained, for thousands of years, critical to the self-identity of the state.
Squares have defined urban living since the dawn of democracy, from which they are inseparable. The public square has always been synonymous with a society that acknowledges public life and a life in public, which is to say a society distinguishing the individual from the state. It is not coincidental that early in 2011 the Egyptian revolution centered around Tahrir Square, or that the Occupy Movement later that same year, partly inspired by the Arab Spring, expressed itself by taking over squares like Taksim in Istanbul, the Plaça de Catalunya in Barcelona, and Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan.
Squares are time-honored places around which whole neighborhoods and cities in every culture have developed. The twenty-first century is the first urban century in human history, the first time more people on the planet live in cities than don’t, making public squares more important than ever. Experts project that some 75 percent of the booming global population will be city dwellers by 2050. Dozens of new cities are springing up in Asia, their growth hastened by political unrest, climate change, and mass relocation program. In the Middle East, political movements are being born, raised, and killed in public spaces – the fight for expression, for righta, for progress, is being played out in the region’s most historic spaces. In the West, the placemaking movement has taken hold: a movement to re-establish public squares as major destinations where civic life flourishes.
The Public Square Project explores a subset of squares that represent these changing times, and the changing role of public squares in today’s world. This project looks at creation versus destruction, and absence versus presence of 15 public squares across Asia, the Middle East, Europe and North America, to determine their effect on democracy and democratic movements. The 15 squares are divided into 4 categories.
The art of architecture requires not just making attractive buildings but providing citizens with generous, creative, open, inviting public spaces. And one of the basic truths of urban life turns out to be that there’s a nearly insatiable demand for such places, a demand that has been seen through history and across continents. For a space to be determined a public square, it must fulfill two conditions: it must be an explicitly planned and earmarked open area in a city and it must be accessible to all citizens. To be a functional public square, it must promote free speech, interaction, and economy. The examples included in this project are: Grand Parade, Euromaiden, Italy’s piazzas. Murad Khane,
2. Public Spaces:
There were, strictly speaking, no public squares in ancient Egypt or India or Mesopotamia. There were courts outside temples and royal houses, and some wide processional streets. These were public spaces – owned or managed by the government, at the public’s will, in terms of access and use. While they were not explicitly meant to be or constructed as squares, these public spaces embody the same qualities as those found in good public squares. City parks and gardens have been excluded from the public spaces as they are places that residents go to escape the hustle and bustle of the city, rather than interact and witness the flows of capital, commerce, ideas, and people that happens in well frequented public spaces. As retreats, parks give us room to breathe and feel alone. Squares reaffirm our commonality, our shared sense of place, and our desire to be included: it’s why we congregate near the kitchen at a dinner party instead of in the living room,The examples included in this project are: Za’atari Refugee Camp, Jemaa el-Fnaa, Mumbai’s maidans, Icelandic Baths
Spaces that were once publicly accessible squares, or sites of political activity and revolution, are often stripped of their public character. This largely occurs during political change – regimes change, governments are toppled, countries lose or gain independence, and revolutions are crushed. After the political change, the square, a symbol, or often the catalyst, of the change, is overtaken – by strict policing, private development, or government propaganda. The examples included in this project are: Tiananmen Square, Red Sqaure, Taksim Square, Tahrir Square
The last square covered – the virtual square – exists as a category of its own, and as perhaps a sign of things to come.
At its core, The Public Square Project seeks to determine the relationship between public squares and democracy. Some of the questions that have guided the research have been:
- How does creation versus destruction, and absence versus presence, of public squares affect democracy and democratic movements?
- What makes public squares so conducive to democracy and democratic values?
- Are cities with public squares more prone to revolution than cities without?
- Does a change of ownership of a space correlate to a change in government?
- Are new public spaces a result of people’s movements?
- Does the destruction of public squares cause a reduction in political participation?
- To what extent are public squares a physical expression of people’s needs, hopes and fears?
In order to explore these questions, I have created the Publis Scale, based on similar scales and metrics that have sought to quantify the effect of public squares/spaces on citizens, government, and the economy. The Publis Scale measures public squares/spaces on 4 categories – Access, Interaction, Emergence, Atmosphere – each of which has several key attributes that determine whether that category is present.
- Access: Focuses on whether the public square/space is accessible to all – looking at physical, cultural and geographical barriers that might prevent a citizen from accessing the space.
- Proximity: Located close to residential, cultural and economic centers of the city
- Connected: Easily accessible via public transport
- Walkable: Layout of the square is cohesive and compact; no transport required once there
- Universal: Accommodates all physically disabilities
- Welcoming: Inclusive of all ages, gender, race; manifests through restrooms, activities and physical layout
- Interaction: Evaluates whether the public square and the activities carried out there promote interaction between different individuals and interest groups.
- Transit: Different forms of public transport have hubs here; public restrooms, first aid, information desks, post office, wi-fi
- Utilitarian: Multiple food, shopping, service establishments located here
- Celebratory: Important religious, national, and impromptu celebrations occur here; as well as protests,and marches
- Historic: Tourist destination with history well displayed; interactions between locals and visitors
- Passive: Enough places to sit and observe/enjoy the square without actively participating or patronizing an establishment
- Emergence: Assesses the ways the square has negatively and positively effected the local culture, economy, infrastructure.
- Business: Spurs the creation and expansion of small businesses
- Investment: Increases real estate prices, new community oriented buildings by private bodies
- Infrastructure: New government provided services and facilities
- Arts: Inspires and is a site for visual, oral, and spatial artists and installations
- Public Goods: Contributes to local culture – site for festivals, educational programming
- Atmosphere: Analyzes the intangible effects of the square on citizens.
- Diversity: Offers users chances to interact with different people and ideas
- Community: Creates a sense of community amongst residents, businesses, users
- Free Speech: Space for any sort of speech, protest and gathering
- Democracy: Promotes participation in political process or change
- Civic Pride: Citizens are proud of the space existing and participate in its upkeep
Each entry in this project describes the origin and history of a particular public square and then analyzes and grades the square according to the Publis Scale.