Genius of the European Square

One of the greatest inventions of the European city, indeed one could not conceive of most European cities without it, is the central town square or market place. This was a uniquely European invention, intimately connected to the development of democratic and representational self-government.

Whether called agora, forum, piazza, plaza, Platz, platea, piata, námesti, rynek, trg or market place the main square has been a distinguishing characteristic of European cities in one form or another for over two thousand years. During the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth centuries hundreds of market squares were created as the center of new European cities from Spain to Sweden and from Belgium to Hungary. The medieval market place fostered the development of community, culture and democracy.

What is unique about the traditional European square?

The traditional European town square is an urban space surrounded by an almost continuous wall of buildings, with small entrances and exits leading in and out, creating the feeling of an outdoor salon or ballroom. Most of the surrounding buildings are what we now call mixed-use shop/houses. They are complemented by important civic and religious edifices that are frequently, though not always, part of the contiguous urban fabric of the square, and emphasize its significance as the most important place in the city. In many Polish cities (Poznan, Krakow, Chewmno, Tarnow), and some Czech cities (Olomouc) the importance of city hall is further accentuated by its placement at the center of the square.

There is no simple formula for a successful square, and every square is unique. The greatest squares are fan shaped (Siena), trapezoidal (Venice's Piazza San Marco), rectangular (Ascoli Piceno), triangular (Tübingen), funnel shaped (Telc), elliptical (Vigevano), oval (Verona), square (Salamanca), square-doughnut shaped (Krakow), or triangular-doughnut shaped (Olomouc), or they are broadened streets visually closed at each end (Landshut).

The placement of buildings around the perimeter transforms the square into a three dimensional composition; more imposing buildings, spires and campanile articulate the vertical axis, increasing dramatic effects.

Visual enclosure

The sense of inclusion", the feeling that one is a member of the neighborhood, or of the city, is subtly reinforced by the square's visual enclosure. Being "inside" the square, surrounded by continuous building walls, with the sky as a ceiling, makes one feel temporarily "at home", and nurtures the citizen's sense of belonging. The space formed by the buildings feels like a well-proportioned room or a grand hall. The curved walls of Siena's Piazza Il Campo seem to enclose you like a warm embrace.

Entrances may be concealed beneath arcades, as in Salamanca's Plaza Mayor, or beneath sottoporteghi, as in Venice. Passing through a dark arch heightens the experience of crossing the threshold, and raises one's awareness of entering the public arena.

Dialogue on the Square

The European square is a place for dialogue and discussion, meetings and greetings, for shared experiences and forming bonds. What do people talk about in squares? No subject is taboo! Mainly they exchange stories about their lives and experiences; details about family, work, state of health, plans and hopes. This significant conversation and dialogue the ultimate expression of life in the city" (Mumford) creates community. As Wendell Berry observes, "community exists only when people know each others' stories".

Sociability and well-being

The European square fosters sociability, that is, interaction for its own sake, to give pleasure to each other, not to enhance one's status or position, but to increase each other's sense of well-being. Sociability may involve gossiping, bantering, storytelling, joking, flirtation, intermixed with seriousness, concern for the other and expressions of support, even love!

Sociability is the basis of many of the activities and events that make social life on the square joyful and meaningful. In these sociable interactions people do not encounter each other in terms of specific roles, as for instance employer-employee, or cashier-customer, but as complete human beings. The status of each, their social or economic position, knowledge or fame is not as important as personal qualities, graciousness, cordiality and charm (Simmel). In this sense sociability makes for more democratic relations.

The European square as teacher

Especially for children and youth the European square offers an important learning environment. How do children and youth learn the behavior, the attitudes, the skills that transform them into competent, responsible adults capable of, and interested in participating in the life of their community? Children learn by repeated observation, imitation and practice in relating to a range of adults in multiple contexts.

What do they observe to imitate, to practice and to learn from? For example, they learn how parents express affection towards children (by holding, touching, stroking, patting, etc.); how adults show interest and attention towards each other and towards children; how couples express tenderness towards each other; how, as a general rule, persons on European squares act to acknowledge and confirm each others presence. And, if they are fortunate, children get a sense of the pleasure some experience in being with, meeting and talking to each other.

Farmers' Markets

It was the open air market activity in Ancient Greece, classical Rome and in the Middle Ages, that, by drawing everyone together, buyers and sellers, rich and poor, old and young, and providing a catalyst for dialogue among the whole population, generated democratic decision making and a self-governing system…

Even today the market is the most powerful mechanism for generating social life and economic activity on the square, more powerful than any other activity on the square, more potent than the design characteristics of the square, and even more influential than the buildings and building uses around the square.

Freiburg's daily market on Münsterplatz, where local farmers sell their own produce on the north side of the cathedral and wholesalers and craftspeople fill the area south of the cathedral, is one of the most significant factors in Freiburg's success as a center of regional commercial activity, and in generating dialogue and community engagement. City officials let it be known that, if citizens wish to talk unofficially outside office hours, they may be found at the Saturday morning market.

Democratic dialogue, civic engagement

img-float-rightThe great diversity of users, the varied viewpoints and opinions that come together on the square, combined with the presence of city hall mean that civic issues are often vehemently debated on the square. In Greece, Italy and Spain it is most frequently the men who gather just before lunch or in the evening to discuss the actions of a city council member, plans for a new building, the threatened strike of factory workers or proposals to resolve an ecological problem.

On the Venetian campo many are involved in discussions of issues affecting Venice – the most recent flooding and whether the proposed technological solution (Moses Gates) will cause an even greater ecological disaster; whether those responsible for the fire at the Fenice theater will be punished; the gondoliers' strike to force the city to reduce speed limits for motor taxis; or how to prevent the administration from buying more of the poorly designed new vaporetti (water buses).


The square is the essence of the European city, epitomizing the community's heritage and symbolizing its identity. In fostering the cooperative, entrepreneurial, cultural, and democratically organized urban civilization that was a uniquely European invention the multi-functional market square is a true symbol of unity for the European Community.

If these important social functions of the European square are not understood, and if mechanisms are not found to protect the traditional multi-functional character of the European square, a powerful context for socialization, acculturation, and democratization of society will be lost.

© Suzanne H. Crowhurst Lennard. December 2004.

Not for quotation without permission.

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