After looking at what the world’s best squares do for their respective cities, you get a better sense of the tremendous untapped potential in the many underperforming squares around the country and the world–places that have crucial locations, but no life. There’s something holding back each of these squares from becoming great places that can make a positive contribution to the vitality and prosperity of their communities.
1. City Hall Plaza, Boston, MA
There is no square as terrible and bleak as this one. It is the polar opposite of what belongs at the center of one of North America’s greatest cities. We believe that City Hall and the Plaza should be torn down and rebuilt as a great gathering place linked to the all the great places nearby. It would give the people of Boston such a sense of relief after decades of looking at this disaster. There is nothing good about either the building or the plaza, and the sooner Boston decides to move on the better.
2. Place de la Concorde, Paris, France
Place de la Concorde is the worst of all public spaces in Paris because it exists solely to move traffic. This square, the biggest in Paris, is 21 acres large. Calling it the Place de la Concorde (“Square of Peace”) is the height of irony. Its history of slaughter, (over 1100 people were beheaded there and another 133 trampled to death), is recalled by the racing traffic that constantly threatens to run over the numerous pedestrians traveling between the Tuileries and the Champs Elysées. Hopes of walking comfortably from the Louvre, through the Tuileries, to the Champs Elysées are immediately dashed upon encountering this asphalt battlefield.
Nowhere can you find so vast an expanse of vehicle-dominated space that is less necessary than Place de la Concorde. The vehicular space could be reduced by 80% and there would still be a smooth flow of traffic. Instead of an enormous void, this could be the central point in all of Paris–a historic destination, a gateway/transition space, and a great event center. From its vantage point there are fabulous vistas of many noteworthy monuments. More than any other single space in Paris, Place de la Concorde could be transformed from a spectacular failure into a sublime, transcendent urban space.
3. Occidental Square, Seattle, WA
Seattle’s downtown is on the verge of redefining itself. It simply needs a well-placed push to break out of the self-imposed morass — bought on by the fear of undesirables and a reluctance to embrace its ethnic diversity — it has stuck in for decades. There are so many breakout opportunities and Occidental Square in the Pioneer Square District is one of the most important. The state of this square has kept the whole district from becoming a great destination. We would venture to say that property values are now at 60% of what they would be with a thriving square to give energy and stature to this critical historic area. PPS has recently undertaken two community planning efforts for Occidental Square, giving momentum to the reclamation of this vitally important place.
4. UN Plaza, San Francisco, CA
United Nations Plaza is a major point of access to San Francisco’s vast but disappointing Civic Center, and a key location on the equally underperforming Market Street. Together, UN Plaza and Civic Center represent a major opportunity to tie together and improve the mediocre Market Street and the abysmal Embarcadero, one of the most unpleasant waterfront boulevards of any major city.
UN Plaza should be the gateway to a dynamic Civic Center. At its center currently is a wonderful fountain that is just in the wrong place–a sunken pit with water raging within (when it is on) that has become a bathing pool for San Francisco’s homeless. The potential of UN Plaza becomes apparent on market days, when the place thrives. Further redefining this plaza as a market destination with programming and other activity would do wonders. UN Plaza should stay true to its name and do all it can to showcase the assets of the multiple cultures that are part of the market.
5. Tate Modern Public Spaces, London
Recently redeveloped and opened in 2000, this plaza of a renowned art museum is a study in aggravating design. The fact that people might use it could not have been remotely considered. It truly has the worst and most poorly located benches ever produced by man. A space that offers so few options, that controls people and limits their actions, will only irritate them. Comparing this public space with other contemporary sculpture gardens, such as the Hirschhorn and the National Gallery in Washington, or the MoMA’s garden in New York, you realize how far off the mark the Tate Modern is.
6. Pershing Square, Los Angeles, CA
Pershing Square is basically a design statement with little or no function. Its last redesign in 1994 seemed more an egregious exercise in artistic form than an effort to promote the uses and activities that make successful public spaces. In fact, there are no positive uses or activities to speak of. The colors are wonderful, but even the act of walking through Pershing Square is impeded by a series of walls or grass areas that are not to be used. It is surrounded by massive roads that further isolate the square from the city. By focusing on fostering the activities needed to bring life to the space and rethinking the surrounding context of wide, high speed streets, Pershing Square has the potential to be the famous and great people place downtown Los Angeles sorely needs.
7. Public Square, Cleveland, OH
Cleveland’s famed Public Square is surrounded and divided by wide roads full of fast moving traffic. So, there’s little going on there. The Square’s mediocrity is all the more frustrating in light of its promising location: Cleveland’s main street, Euclid Avenue, connects Public Square to Playhouse Square, the city’s theater district, and the Public Square itself fronts Terminal Tower, a beautiful old mixed-used, transit-centered development. The first priority should be to make Public Square more accommodating to pedestrians by narrowing intersections and reducing the number of vehicle lanes to slow down traffic. These steps are prerequisite to creating better connections between the Square and key places along its edges, such as Terminal Tower. The finishing touch would be to program activities and create attractions and amenities to support this programming within each of the Square’s four quadrants.
8. Schouwburgplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands
This is a perfect example of how a design statement cannot be a great square. People have told us that a lot of people use this square as an open space on days when events take place. But sporadic use does not make a great square. Our work on squares emphatically shows that the design needs to first work without any programming. A place works best if it draws a regular clientele who stay even when nothing is being programmed. Then, with a solid foundation to build on, programming can draw different types of activity such as markets, cultural events and performances.
9. Education Plaza, Washington, DC
The federal government needs to move past the fortress mentality it has imposed on every building it operates. The Department of Education on Independence Avenue is the perfect site to move beyond the perpetual state of fear that pervades every federal building in Washington and, increasingly, across the nation. On a street leading up to the Capitol, full of museums–from the fantastic Smithsonian to the Hirschhorn and National Air and Space Museum–it could become one of the nation’s most striking and popular public spaces.
10. Logan Circle, Philadelphia, PA
The spectacular Swann Memorial Fountain is Logan Circle’s great attraction. But only the brave few who manage to cross the speeding traffic of Benjamin Franklin Parkway can fully experience the fountain’s pleasures. Located on a crucial axis that connects Philadelphia’s famous City Hall to the Museum of Art, Logan Circle deserves to be part of a grand pedestrian boulevard, but is instead isolated by five lanes of vehicles. To make matters worse, the renowned cultural institutions that surround the Circle have little connection to the park itself. If Benjamin Franklin Parkway and the roadways around the Circle were dramatically narrowed, this would change the atmosphere of the entire area and help Swann Fountain regain its standing as one of the city’s showpieces. Once people feel comfortable walking through the area, other improvements can follow. In an encouraging sign of progress already underway, the Center City District is working with the prestigious cultural institutions around the Circle to make their assets more visible in the park. With these changes Logan Circle could very well become one of the best public places in the world.
This is a tragic missed opportunity. What could be a great example of a contemporary building fitting into an ancient walled city and contributing in many diverse ways to its community life and culture has instead become just a single-use destination for skateboarders. Skate parks are fine things, but there’s nothing for anyone else here, in what is supposed to be a premiere public place.
As with so many buildings of this ilk, the main problems are the lack of things on the ground floor to engage or attract pedestrians, and an insistence that the plaza design reflect the minimalist building design. A purely visual space invites purely one-dimensional uses. Suburban buildings relish making a big design statement — and they have the space to do so (for better or worse). But urban buildings like this need to support diverse, dynamic human activity, and therefore need appropriate and sensitive design. Apparently, the architect did not understand that responsibility.
12. Dupont Circle, Washington, DC
Many think Dupont Circle is the best destination in Washington. We think it is performing at 30% of its potential. The city has undergone a metamorphosis in the past ten years, with many areas gradually becoming more vital. However, there seems to be a limit to this improvement: a rigid adherence to a master plan that keeps many areas from coalescing into real destinations. Dupont Circle needs to be freed from that mold. There are active parts of the Circle, but they are not connected. The Farmers Market is separate from the inner circle and from the active part of Massachusetts Avenue. The road around the Circle is two lanes too wide, and the connections from the interior park to the edges could be dramatically improved. With Connecticut Avenue running underneath the circle, there is no need to cater to heavy traffic. In fact, Dupont Circle could become a traffic-calmed, pedestrian friendly destination and quite possibly the core of a great urban district. Fulfilling this tremendous opportunity is essential if Washington is to become a world class city.
13. City Centre, Mississauga, Ontario
Mississauga is Canada’s 5th largest city but is known mainly as the home of Toronto’s airport. It lacks a reputation to match its size. A big reason is, as Gertrude Stein once put it, “there is no there there” in the central district, which is dominated by a gigantic shopping center. This could be easily changed by focusing on improving the underperforming public spaces at the public buildings downtown and tying them into the mall with a newly created Main Street between them. Doing this, Mississauga could take a giant leap to becoming a real and dynamic city. With all the residential development happening near downtown and a commitment to a series of new parks to support these residents, Mississauga can be a model for the modern city.
14. Exchange Square, Manchester, UK
Like Schouwburgplein, Exchange Square is known as an “event space.” The problem is that it only works when events are taking place. Its fancy paving, sweeping design statements and hidden water feature dress the square up, but leave the user with no place to go. Over-designed, inflexible, and dominated by rows of awkward sitwalls that impede pedestrian flow and gathering, this square should be exchanged for a place that displays a rudimentaty understanding of how people use public space. It masquerades as a civic square, but actually prevents this space from really evolving to celebrate the true richness and diversity of Manchester.
15. Carré d’Art, Nimes, France
Nimes is a lovely city in southeastern France that some have called the “Rome of France.” It has a wonderful network of public spaces, small squares, and streets. But the attempt to mix historic and modern design in the Carré d’Art and the new museum that faces it, the Musée d’Art Contemporain, is startlingly out of context. The building, designed by Norman Foster, is sterile and aloof, creating a dead zone around the square. On the side of the plaza opposite the Museum sits an ancient Roman temple called the Maison Carrée. Any similar temple in Rome itself would be a great gathering place. But that is not the case in Nimes, since this small square lacks the qualities that most Roman squares have in abundance. It wouldn’t take much to make this a great series of public spaces: The tragedy is that the designer has stifled that possibility by creating a building to be looked at, but not used.