Squares, Parks & Squarks

Until the nineteenth century, a square or plaza was a hard surfaced open space between buildings, a place for contact with our fellow human beings in exchange, dialogue, debate, play and democratic decision making. Parks belonged to the nobility and were for recreation and contact with nature. The confusion began in the 19th century when market squares resounding to the hullaballoo of trade were transformed into genteel gardens where newly middle class ladies with parasols strolled and listened to brass bands. In North and South America, plazas founded by the Spanish were refashioned overnight from busy market places and parade grounds into geometric gardens with paths, benches, flowers and bandstands. In America, the words “square” and “plaza” no longer convey their original meaning. They have become associated with park-like features and recreational uses.

No wonder that today, when a square or a plaza is created in America, it turns out to be a squark!

Over the history of Western city-making, it was only in Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, and in the Middle Ages that people really understood how to create a square that fulfilled fundamental social functions. During these periods there was a passion for democratic decision making. When a new city was founded, the first and most essential element was the multi-functional agora, forum, or market square[i]. This was where discussion and dialogue took place, where issues were debated, where citizens exchanged opinions, where rich and poor rubbed shoulders, and where the young became socialized. This was a place for commerce, religion, culture, governance and social life. All the streets and buildings were laid out around the square to form a tight, complex mix of uses that supported the primary function of the city – democratic dialogue.

The Spanish brought the European style square to North America. Every city founded by the Spanish had to be laid out around a central multi-functional plaza that functioned as a social gathering place, a market place, and a military parade ground.

During the 19th century this kind of multi-functional plaza where all, rich and poor, and different ethnic groups could mingle fell out of favor. Around the world, the rising middle class wanted to separate themselves from the poor and working class. It became fashionable to redesign open plazas as ornamental parks with fountains, bandstands, flower beds, gravel paths and benches to support recreation – strolling, listening to the band, and polite conversation. Indeed, in many parts of the world, these parks became fenced and policed to keep out those who were too poor, lacked shoes, or were from the wrong ethnic group.

In the US, almost all Spanish plazas underwent this transformation; they changed from being a multi-functional democratic space from which no one could be excluded into a genteel garden designed for relaxation and entertainment. This narrower definition of expected behavior tended to exclude the poor because they “had no business” there. Access could easily be denied because the squares became fenced.

St. Augustine’s Plaza de la Constitucion, an open, multi-functional space, was laid out by the Spanish in 1586. By 1887, the plaza had become a park. Markets and festivals are not permitted on the plaza because of the damage they do to the grass.

Santa Fe was founded in 1610 as a provincial capital of New Spain. The Plaza was used by the Spanish and Indian population for gatherings, festivals, bullfights and markets. In 1866, just 16 years after New Mexico became a US territory, the new Anglo rulers fenced Santa Fe’s plaza and turned it into a public garden, effectively preventing the Spanish population from gathering there.

Jackson Square in New Orleans, originally known as the Place d'Armes (parade ground) was laid out by the French in 1721 as a market place connected to the waterfront and parade ground, and was used for public meetings and large festivals. In 1850, Baroness Pontalba, beautified the square by creating a landscaped garden with trees, lawns and concentric pathways furnished with benches, around a central statue of General Andrew Jackson, making it into an “oasis of gentility”[ii]. She also installed the wrought-iron fence that still encloses the garden and sets it apart from the busy waterfront and surrounding streets. Occasionally, the fence has been locked to prevent “undesirables” from using the garden. Since the 1960s Jackson Square has become New Orleans’ prime tourist destination. To attract tourists, artists are permitted to hang their works on the fence outside the park. No other items are permitted to be sold.

Even Savannah’s original six squares laid out by Oglethorpe in 1733, were designed as multifunctional squares for markets, festivals, neighborhood and civic activities. During the 19th century they were all gradually transformed into parks, and fences were installed (today, only Crawford Square retains its fence).

In South America the transformation of a plaza was often an excuse to provide an amenity for the more wealthy (generally of Spanish descent) at the expense of the poor (of indigenous descent). A fenced and gated garden-plaza was often policed to prevent entry to those who were improperly dressed (in peasant costume or lacking shoes). The sale of produce could be more easily controlled by land owners and shop keepers, making it still more difficult for peasants with only a basket of fruit or baked goods to sell.

In Mexico, the changes took place during the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz (1876-1910), when a stable economy produced some prosperity and a middle class. The plazas were laid out with gardens, flowering trees, geometric pattern of paths, lacy cast-iron benches and a cast-iron bandstand at the center.

This gentrification process changed very few European plazas into parks. Salamanca’s Plaza Mayor was an exception. This was built in 1728, carved out of the existing dense urban fabric, on the site of the original medieval market place. The intention was to create a “sumptuous” plaza appropriate for festivals, spectacles and royal visits. Surrounding houses were designed with balconies to provide space for spectators.

Shortly before 1890, the plaza was transformed into an elaborate, Victorian-style park with formal flower gardens, walkways, hedges, trees and a fountain, with a circular bench facing outwards. The park was fenced off and separated from surrounding buildings by a roadway.

It was not until 1954 that the park was removed. For 30 years the plaza was asphalted and used as a car park. Finally, in 1985, the plaza resumed its original multifunctional social character as a paved open space for social life, festivity and celebration, and this is how we see it today.

Today, in Western Europe, squares and piazzas exhibit their almost-original form and fulfill many of their original social functions.

At the same time that squares were transformed into parks, the markets that used to take place on the square, bringing together rich and poor, vendors and their customers, people from the country and from the city, were moved into the other great Victorian invention, the cast iron market hall. The market hall was functional and emphasized the instrumental role relationships of vendor and customer, rather than the multiplicity of social interactions and nuanced relationships that developed on the square.

In recent years, farmers markets are again flourishing across North America and justifiably have become wildly popular. Lacking a central square, they have been relegated to a main street (in the best cases), or a parking lot beneath a freeway (in the worst cases) where their vibrancy and their ability to act as catalyst for social and economic development is unused.

For the sake of our democratic decision making process, and for our social and physical health, it is time to revive the main square and the neighborhood square as multi-functional open paved spaces surrounded by mixed-use buildings including residential, commercial and civic functions, where the farmers market and democratic dialogue may once again take center stage.

[i] Suzanne H. Crowhurst Lennard & Henry L. Lennard. Genius of the European Square. 2008. Carmel, CA: Gondolier Press.

[ii] Michael Webb, The City Square. A Historical Evolution. 1990 NY: Whitney Library of Design. Watson-Guptill Publications.