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Piazza della Signoria - A prominent square in Florence, Italy. Image: Prof. Mortel / Flickr

Why are City Squares So Prominent?

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Yonge-Dundas Square, in Toronto, Canada, an example of a modern urban square. Via Wikipedia

Yonge-Dundas Square, in Toronto, Canada, an example of a modern urban square. Via Wikipedia

City squares or town squares are open public spaces found in many countries for community gatherings. They have served many purposes for both local residents and tourists alike. The concept and development of city squares has specifically been popular in Europe. The exact purpose of city squares is unknown, but it is important to remember that they do not serve one single purpose, although they are quite popular in urban settings and provide a good public space for people to socialize. City squares are usually surrounded by small businesses such as coffee shops, bakeries and restaurants and are centrally located in the heart of a city. As many of them are tourist attractions, businesses try to establish themselves in the squares. Some are even decorated with sculptures, fountains and gardens for people to sit and capture the unique landscape. The names of the city squares vary depending on the structure of the landscape, for instance, large squares are sometimes known as “national squares” while other city squares with fountains are known as “fountain squares.”

According to an article by J Harley city squares “provide opportunity for the display of merchandise for sale and for a place to seek lodging or food. In the modern urban setting, Town Squares also generally provide a welcome separation of pedestrian traffic from vehicular traffic.” This is specifically true in big cities with traffic congestion problems, where the squares provide a peaceful area for entertainment, away from the hustle and  bustle of busy city life. Research suggests that city squares have been present in the urban landscape for many years and hold a historical prominence to the landscape.  Evidently, the squares have gained more functions through time.

The use of city squares dates back to many centuries ago. “The tradition of creating a common open space in a town is ancient, as has been discovered on numerous archaeological digs.” The Romans used these squares as a means for public gathering for debates and public speeches by famous politicians. In some other parts of Europe, the squares were used for businesses especially for trading purposes as trade routes offered the opportunity for exchange of goods and ideas during community gatherings. Military parades and processions also took place in some city squares where people observed and bid soldiers farewell during wartime. “The squares became the location of royal courts, government buildings and city halls as manifestations of wealth and power. They were also used for races, like the Palio race in Siena, bull fights, executions, or even just to collect rain water in large underground cisterns.”

“In recent times, theaters, restaurants and museums are also finding their place on the squares. Cities themselves, are actually becoming museums, a collection of human experiences that preserve numerous cultural values.”

Now, the function of city squares has revolutionized. New Urbanism has led planners and designers building city squares in a novel manner – in a more distinguished urbanized space compared to what it was centuries ago. Now, in the 21st century, they mostly serve as open public spaces for anyone to use instead of only for official purposes. However, economic investments seem to have increased in these spaces. For instance, the development plan of Choctaw Town Square in Oklahoma states that the main purpose of developing a city square in the region is to “attract major investment and promote economic development in the area” while also providing a recreational open space for its citizens. Investment and economic development in the squares have continued to the present generation as they were also operational in the olden trading days, thereby attracting more businesses in the area.

Clearly, city squares are now a place for businesses to boom and people of all entities to come together.  Street plays, music, dance and other forms of entertainment also take part in the squares regularly as an innovative method for more people to gather in the open space. “In recent times, theaters, restaurants and museums are also finding their place on the squares. Cities themselves, are actually becoming museums, a collection of human experiences that preserve numerous cultural values.”

Here are my top five examples of prominent city squares around the world:

1. Piazza della Singnoria – Florence, Italy.

Piazza della Signoria - A prominent square in Florence, Italy. Image: Prof. Mortel / Flickr

Piazza della Signoria – A prominent square in Florence, Italy. Image: Prof. Mortel / Flickr

Piazza della Singnoria is a famous city square landmark in Florence, Italy. As evident in the picture, the space is decorated with many sculptures signifying a historic prominence within the city. Many stalls are evident under the umbrella, the space is surrounded by big buildings and people with their own group of acquaintances are gathered around the square.

2. The Grand Place – Brussels, Belgium

An event (Jazz Marathon) taking place in The Grand Place in Brussels, Belgium. (Image: haveacupoftea / Flickr)

An event (Jazz Marathon) taking place in The Grand Place in Brussels, Belgium. (Image: haveacupoftea / Flickr)

The Grand Place in Brussels, Belgium is the most prominent town square in the city and the central square of Brussels. It is surrounded with Guildhalls or town halls. As seen in the photo, many outdoor events take place in this space for people to come together and enjoy the landscape of Brussels. It is a very famous landscape and one of the most important tourist destination in the country.

 3. Trafalgar Square – Central London, U.K.

Trafalgar Square, London (Image: SwedishGoose / Flickr)

Trafalgar Square, London (Image: SwedishGoose / Flickr)

Trafalgar Square is a public space located in Central London. It is decorated with fountains and numerous statues. The picture shows people walking around the square, sitting on the fountains and enjoying the large landscape.  The figure of Nelson is located at the center of the square. Political demonstrations and other such gatherings also take place in this public space.

4. Tiananmen Square – Beijing, China

Tiananmen Square in  Beijing, China (Image:  Keith Roper / Flickr)

Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China (Image: Keith Roper / Flickr)

Tianamen Square is located at the heart of China’s capital city, Beijing. It is among the three largest city squares in the world and has many visitors come regularly to observe the public space. It has a very strong historical prominence as many cultural events have taken place in this area. As evident in the picture the space is modernized with digital screens being placed at the corners of the square.

5. Federation Square – Melbourne, Australia

Federation Square, Australia (Image: csmramsden / Flickr)

Federation Square, Australia (Image: csmramsden / Flickr)

Federation Square or Fed Square in Melbourne Australia is a square developed for mixed use purposes. It has both open and closed public squares with a mix of museums, shops, restaurants and bars which are open throughout the day. This is a fairly recent urban square which was built a decade ago and opened in 2002. Many residents and tourists use this large space located in the CBD for recreational purposes.

Feel free to tell us about some of your favorite city squares and the prominence behind them in the comments section below.