Designing Successful Neighborhood Squares. Part 3. Size and Shape

By Suzanne H. Crowhurst Lennard

It is important to decide on the size of the square in relation to two interdependent factors: 1) the social functions and population for which the square is designed; and 2) the height of surrounding buildings.

The size of a square must be appropriate to the size of the population served, and the events, and social life for which it is planned.  There are successful neighborhood squares as small as 6,000 square feet (Capri’s Piazza Umberto I), and some larger than 65,000 square feet (Campo Santa Margherita, Venice). For a square to function well as a gathering place for the community, it should be neither too large nor too small.

As a rule of thumb, a square with a width of 100’ and a length of 150’, such as Zilverpand in Bruges, provides good proportions and sufficient space for a neighborhood with a population of up to 10,000. Around the square are shops and restaurants at street level with housing above, much of which is city-owned public housing.

Campo Santa Margherita is the neighborhood square for the district of Dorsoduro in Venice. It is an irregularly shaped square approximately 100’ x 600’. A small building, originally the Scuola dei Varoteri (Leather Workers’ Guild) stands in the square, dividing it into two parts. Surrounding buildings are mostly 3 and 4 stories; only one building is 5 stories.

Until the early 1990s this square only served the local population of about 15,000 with a daily pattern of shopping, walking to work, playing and socializing, a weekly schedule of various market stalls on different days of the week, and annual community festivities such as Festa del’Unita and Carnivale. However, students at Venice University have now become dominant, overburdening the square in the evenings, and tourists are increasingly infiltrating the square during the day, unbalancing the square’s intimate neighborliness, putting more bodies on the square but reducing the number of meetings and conversations.

Capri’s tiny main square, Piazza Umberto I, is a dynamic crossroads of Capresi life, humming with conversation in the early morning and early evening. The square is only about 60’ x 100’ with City Hall at one end and the church of Santo Stefano at the other. At these times, the square does not feel cramped because the buildings on 3 sides are only 1 story. However, now that mass tourism has claimed possession of the square, it is packed with tourists in the afternoon and late evening, making it feel very cramped at times.

Campo di Fiori (100’ x 200’), a neighborhood square with one of the best markets in Rome, is barely large enough for all the stalls during the market, but feels spacious when the stalls are removed. Most surrounding buildings are 4 or 5 stories; a few are 6 stories above the cornice line.

Some small town main squares built in the Middle Ages for annual markets (such as Telč in the Czech Republic), and Baroque squares built for ceremonial purposes or to emphasize the grandeur of surrounding buildings (such as Residenzplatz in Salzburg) are far too large to function well in generating community and civic engagement. Trziste Náměsti in Telč is over 1,000’ long, 300’ wide at its widest, tapering to 60’. It is architecturally superb, and a UNESCO World Heritage, but for the population of less than 6,000, it does not facilitate social life. People are lost in the space. The length of the square makes it impossible to recognize, let alone call to someone at the other end.

The addition of the deep arcades on either side in the 16th century helped to focus social life as people moved from shop to shop in the street-like arcades. These arcades function well to increase the opportunities for serendipitous meetings between 2 or 3 residents while shopping but do little to mitigate the larger space of the square to encourage larger groups to form.

Residenzplatz, Salzburg is approximately 200’ x 400’. The purpose of the square was to emphasize the power of the church and the prince-bishops and to keep the population at a distance. For these purposes the square is admirably scaled, but it certainly is not well suited to democratic dialogue.

The relationship of the size of the square to the height of buildings is critical. A small neighborhood square of 100’ x 100’ will not function well for a neighborhood if it is surrounded on all sides by buildings of more than 4 stories, or by buildings on two sides of more than 5 stories. High “walls” to the square make the space feel claustrophobic. They block out too much of the sky and prevent the sun from reaching the square at times when it is most needed – spring/fall evenings and winter afternoons. (See more in 6. Surrounding building heights/proportions)

Squares come in all kinds of shapes. Siena’s Piazza il Campo is fan shaped. The market squares in Trier, Tübingen and Landsberg are roughly triangular. Trziste Náměsti in Telč in the Czech Republic is funnel-shaped. Verona’s Piazza delle Erbe is oval. Salamanca’s Plaza Mayor is square. Olomouc’s Horni Náměsti is doughnut-shaped, with a building in the middle of a large triangular square, and in Poland many are square but with a building, or a collection of buildings, in the middle. 

Symmetry often makes a square less suitable for community life. It seems to demand pomp and circumstance, not spontaneity, or the untidy coming and going of impromptu social life, children’s play and farmers’ markets. Symmetry leads city fathers to place monuments at the central point or along the central axis, overshadowing the primary importance of the citizens. Salamanca’s Plaza Mayor is an exception: it is strictly symmetrical, yet after many metamorphoses in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it now contains no monuments and is extremely lively.

In his evaluation of European squares, Camillo Sitte argued forcefully for “the innate, instinctive aesthetic sense that worked such obvious wonders for the old masters without resort to narrow aesthetic dogma or stuffy rules. We, on the other hand, come along afterwards, scurrying about with our T-square and compass, presuming to solve with clumsy geometry those fine points that are matters of pure sensitivity.”

From his analysis of European squares, Klaus Humpert argues that the subtly curved perimeter walls found in many medieval squares were not achieved accidentally by following the curve of a stream or footpath, but were carefully measured and laid out for aesthetic effect by the medieval master architects. If this is true, perhaps the inspiration for this aesthetic came from Venice, whose curving streets and campo walls were dictated by the gentle flow of pre-existing canals. 

We have a choice in how we shape public places. Even when we work within a grid plan of streets, a "square" does not need to be "square".

See: Part 4.  The Community’s “Living Room”