Public squares in European city centres

Bob Giddings, Joyce Charlton, Margaret Horne

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


The objective of this paper is to address three major issues - why there has been a decline in public squares; why it is important to re-introduce public squares; and how to re-introduce public squares. During the latter part of the 20th century, city centre squares acquired either an image of empty spaces or an unattractive picture as traffic islands. This was emphasised by the decline of traditional community activities and the perception of comfort generated by internalising external space; coupled with a commodifying of cities in which they were merely viewed as commercial and retail opportunities. The privatisation of public space provided an income for the city authorities through the tax base, as well as offering profitable ventures for private enterprises. It also enabled the private sector to operate a form of social control through segregation; and the attendant growth in private security enabled a reduction in police costs. A notion started to grow that communities were losing their city centres to private interests. Communities need public spaces as places for assembly. They are the physical manifestation that each community is coherent and vibrant, and help to counteract claims that centres have just become the province of urban youth culture. Increasingly it is being recognised that identity and place have enormous roles in reinforcing society. The significance of a renaissance of buildings and activities that define society cannot be over-stated; and the importance of bringing symbolic buildings back to prominent positions in city centres; and locating them in proper settings is at its core. This leads to the concept of a square for every symbolic building. At the same time, rejuvenating city centres for pedestrians, from motor vehicles in particular – requires pedestrian networks of streets and squares – introducing pedestrians to symbolic buildings, culture, entertainment, commercial activity and so on. The re-introduction of public squares is part of reversing the erosion of the public sector and the public realm, and reclaiming city centres from private interests for the benefit of communities. Often local authorities own city space, or least have major influence on how it is developed. Planning gain can be derived from retail and commercial developments. Design is more than just providing space between commercial and retail buildings. Criteria for comfortable external spaces have been researched, and these recognise the differences between northern and southern Europe. The most recent advances are in the simulation of city centre design; which includes geometry, uses, pedestrian movement and environmental conditions. There is confidence to be gained from visualisation of how squares will look, feel and be used; and will make a real contribution to the longevity of sustainable urban design. The scope for future studies is significant. As virtual city models become common-place in European cities, the intention is that designers will be able to log onto them. However, as recent advances have shown, they can become more than just visualisation tools. There is an opportunity to develop building information and/or geographic information style models that will revolutionise the designers’ ability to demonstrate precisely how these spaces will perform.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 15 Dec 2010
Event1st International Conference on Sustainable Urbanization (ICSU 2010) - Hong Kong
Duration: 15 Dec 2010 → …


Conference1st International Conference on Sustainable Urbanization (ICSU 2010)
Period15/12/10 → …


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