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Public Squares



Michael Kimmelman on the glory of public squares, which we people desperately need and adore when they have them. Using New York, Palestine, and Berlin as examples, Kimmelman explores the different ways people respond to these spaces. Within the United States, the awful suburbanization of the postwar period drastically undermined public space in the city, though both depopulating the urban center and not building public spaces in the suburbs so that the privatized spaces of indoor shopping malls became the de factor public square, means that as we enter a new period of people desperately wanting dense urbanity, areas that have public squares have become tremendously expensive. A great project would be the creation of public squares throughout our urban spaces, whether in neighborhoods wealthy or poor, suburbs or inner city. They almost always make people’s lives better.

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  • rea

    The picture is Santa Fe’s plaza, right?

    • Yep

      • rea

        Looking much like it did 45 years ago, when I was last there.

        • It hasn’t changed too much in recent years, although I guess it’s been 2 or 3 years since I’ve been there. So maybe there’s a big Arby’s in the middle now.

          • rea
          • Honoré De Ballsack

            So maybe there’s a big Arby’s in the middle now.

            If there is one, at least the city’s building codes require that it be faced with adobe and conform with surrounding structures.

            That said: I can remember back in the 1970s when there was a Woolworth’s (and a few other real stores) on the Plaza, and normal working people shopped there. As with similar spaces in similar cities, the Plaza has pretty much turned into a zone of luxury shops for rich tourists.

          • Linnaeus

            Bigger than the one in COLONIAL HEIGHTS, VIRGINIA?

            • Bill Murray

              stop with your blasphemy

    • delazeur

      Normally I would be annoyed at seeing a lawn in the middle of a desert, but it occurs to me that grassy public squares might be a good way for people to scratch their lawn itch while using less water per capita.

  • LeeEsq

    The article really didn’t do a great job distinguishing between the many different types of public squares. There are cozy, intimate squares like the one above. They make for great public spaces in small cities and neighborhoods in big cities. Than you have public squares that are really more like small parks than a public square. Still good public spaces but not really acting like a public square. You also have public squares that are either designed to impress or end up as a not fun mess to navigate through like Times Square, Shibuya crossing in Tokyo, Alexanderplatz in Berlin, or Piccadilly Circus in London. These have their functions but not as a cozy public space.

  • AMK

    Not building public spaces in the suburbs

    I grew up in New Jersey, which basically invented the surbub and where the state motto continues to be “no shopping mall developer left behind”..,.,and I can’t think of a town that doesn’t have at least one public square, park, town center, etc. Maybe they’ve been used less over time, but they look nice and add value to the commercial development around them, so they’re not going away.

    • Brett

      There’s parks in the suburb I grew up in, but not really a “public square” as we know it. It’s kind of a bummer that they redeveloped the area in the past couple of years to make it denser, but didn’t build it around a public square and maybe invite in some shops and food places within walkable distance of the light rail station.

    • LeeEsq

      Most of the suburbs in the North Eastern parts of the United States still have something of their old centers left. They come across more as actual towns than an exurb.

    • We really are fortunate in the east, where the towns were laid out in the 17th-19th centuries. Suburbanization was a matter of laying a new pattern over one that already existed, as opposed to parts of the country where the suburbs grew in unincorporated land. The old bones are still there, underneath.

      • Thirtyish


      • rea

        The Santa Fe Plaza shown in the photo dates back to the 17th Century.

        • Right, but I’m talking about the suburbs, too. The “suburbs” in New England are, themselves, towns that were founded back then, as real towns. Not just the center city/town in the region.

    • Crusty

      Paramus. Some parks, but I don’t think anything that qualifies as a public square. But you can shop ’til you drop. But not on Sunday.

    • Aaron Morrow

      Much of the stuff built up in South Jersey during the Atlantic City boom does not. Lots of different types of malls, shopping centers, strip malls and parking lots; there’s too many towns between AC and Cape May that have private centers rather than public centers (eg what Loomis said).

      The older cities on the Shore islands tend to have something, and most of the Boardwalks are public, but not on the mainland.

  • CrunchyFrog

    Many years ago, when the kids were young, I made it a habit to take them out from time to time to different parks so that they could experience different playgrounds. Then, as part of our transition to ultimately move to Colorado, the family spent 6 months with me at a corporate apartment in Overland Park, Kansas. The Kansas City area does have some traditional towns in the suburban area with real town centers and real parks, but Overland Park is almost all new development – basically a grid section of thoroughfares spaced a mile apart and large private housing developments with one or two entrances to the thoroughfare, and therein lied our corporate apartment. Of course it was totally unwalkable, but it was also almost devoid of public parks – every private housing development had their own private mini-park/commons, but nothing we could use without a very long drive.

    • LeeEsq

      Suburbia might be a great sociological experiment to create a world of near hermits.

      • Thirtyish

        I had the misfortune are of living in a suburban area six years ago. Never in my life have I been in a place that felt more dead and where I felt more isolated–and I’m a loner by nature!

        • It’s not just the distances, or even the lack of busy public places.

          There is no gradation in between fully-public and fully-private spaces. If you so much as approach someone’s door, you’re intruding on them before you even get close enough to knock, and they resent it. And they’re not crazy to do so, because you’ve probably had to walk across their lawn quite a ways to some door that may be a glass slider, or around the side, or opens right into the kitchen.

          So you don’t, and they don’t, because who wants to be an intruder? Meanwhile, I sit on my front porch, and people on the sidewalk outside my house can comfortably say hello and chat without even a hint of creepiness.

          • CrunchyFrog

            True, but there are different flavors of suburbia, as noted in the discussion of Overland Park below. Suburbs that were laid out pre-WW2 don’t have the same population density of a city, but still can be highly walkable, especially if they have lots of smaller parks and neighborhood corner stores. Even in post-WW2 the changeover to modern HOA-based suburbia didn’t happen at once or uniformly. In the bay area I lived in a neighborhood built out from 1968-1971 by a number of builders and it still was reasonably walkable. At the high point there were two book stores, a convenience store, two small grocers specializing in fruits/veges, two small city parks, and a small chain drug store all within a half mile’s walk.

            But these days everything is developer-built HOA, and it seems like its either modern private-road-with-one-exit sprawl style or isolated pseudo high density, where it looks like walkable high density but no one actually goes on the paths or in the squares because you have to drive to get anywhere. We’re seeing this, sadly in a lot of the new neighborhoods in Denver, such as the recovered land where Stapleton Airport used to be.

            • The 1920s neighborhood I live in is like that. Single family homes (with the occasional 2-family) on 4000-7000 square foot lots (with the very occasional “big” quarter acre lot) and corner stores. It was the suburbs when it was built, but today, my family talks about us as the city mice.

    • Thirtyish

      North Overland Park–the older part of town–is quite nice. The 75th and Metcalf area is charming and has a nice “town center” feel to it, with established neighborhoods that have distinct-looking, non-cookie cutter homes. The newer areas of southern Overland Park are a suburban wasteland abomination that are virtually identical to much of Olathe (the red-headed stepchild of Johnson County).

      • CrunchyFrog

        Yes, I discovered that about half way through our sentence in Kansas when some co-workers invited me to tennis at the Prairie Village tennis/swim center – once acquainted, I began taking the kids there frequently and from that point forward began seeking out public parks in that area. I’m sure we went to all of them around that area at least once. But we were living south of 135th – a long drive just to find a nice, classic neighborhood.

  • A mother doesn’t always wear the veil in Fawwar, whether she’s at home or out on the street, because the whole place is, in a sense, her home; but she will put it on when she leaves the camp, because that is outside.


    Fascinating piece.

  • We’ve got a really wonderful town square where I live now — nice green space around a pretty historic courthouse, lots of businesses and restaurants, the best damn used bookstore I’ve ever seen in my life. I generally spend a big chunk of every weekend walking around that place for exercise — and if it ever goes away, it’d make me start looking for a new city to move to…

  • DrDick

    Have to agree and one of the things I like about living here is that there are a number of public spaces scattered around town.

  • Downpuppy

    I live in a city where every third crossroad is a named square.

    It has its moments

    • los

      like “Old Elms Court”, sans any elm trees.

  • Origami Isopod

    People who didn’t like cities, and disliked democracy in its messiness, complained that agoras mixed religious and sacrilegious life

    Same as it ever was.

  • afdiplomat

    Just a footnote to this excellent post: they make people’s lives better provided that they are policed and maintained. (Some of the rundown public squares in D.C. are examples of that point.) Public squares don’t take care of themselves.

    That point made, Loomis is exactly right. i grew up in Glendale, California, and I remember how often my family — which was a bit on the short end financially — used to visit some of the really nice city parks there. They were, and are, extraordinary places for many types of public activities, from horticulture to dog-running. I used to play quite a bit on a World War I cannon in Fremont Park in Glendale, not far from my home. That’s the kind of space that made suburban living at the time (the 1950s and 1960s) so desirable.

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