Designing Successful Neighborhood Squares. Part 4: The Community’s Living Room

By Suzanne H. Crowhurst Lennard

To be successful, a neighborhood square must be designed for people. It must feel like the community’s living room -  lively, safe, comfortable and hospitable. It must facilitate social interaction and foster a sense of community identity. To achieve these goals, enclosure, sunlight and shade, protection from inclement weather, and from noise, danger and pollution are essential factors.

Enclosure:

The sense of “inclusion”, the feeling that one is a member of the neighborhood, is subtly reinforced by a square’s visual enclosure, with buildings on all sides. Being “inside” a square, surrounded by continuous building walls, with the sky as ceiling, makes one feel temporarily “at home”, and nurtures citizen’s sense of belonging.

It is essential that enclosing building walls are not too high. We will explore this in more depth below, and in Part 6, Building Heights. Suffice it to say here that one major factor in determining their height must be to maintain human scale – the distance at which it is possible to recognize and call to someone on a top floor balcony. The second major factor in determining height must be the decision as to when the community desires to have sunlight in the square.

Visual enclosure focuses attention on people and activities within the square.  This is lost if the square offers a vista into another open space, such as a park, which distracts attention from the social world, and sets up a competing destination.

Observation of social life on the Venetian campi (enclosed neighborhood squares) over a forty-year period confirms that Venetians grow up with an exceptional awareness of their human environment (including visitors). They pay attention to their social world and often remember conversations, personal characteristics and other details that would be forgotten by people living in other cities.

Anyone who has entered Siena’s Piazza Il Campo knows that the curved walls of the piazza seem to enclose you like a warm embrace. This square belongs to the whole city, but part of the fervor with which Siena’s 17 neighborhoods strive to win the Palio race each year has to do with every citizen’s desire to have their neighborhood crowned king of the piazza and to “own” the piazza – at least until the next Palio.

Sun and shade:

In temperate climates, a square should be enclosed on four sides, with building heights designed to maximize sunlight, a view of the sky, shade in the summer, and protection from inclement weather. The ideal design will vary according to the latitude, and climate.

In northern latitudes, the square should maximize sun in the winter by ensuring buildings on the south side are low, and the E-W dimensions are large enough to extend the hours when sunlight can fall on the square. In hot southern latitudes, shade from buildings, trees, awnings, and arcades will be desired, and buildings on the south may be higher. In areas that experience heavy rain or snow, arcades or set-backs at street level make the square hospitable by providing shelter. 

Buildings around the square do not have to be all the same height. The comfort and pleasure experienced by the ordinary citizens should be stronger determinants of the design than expressing the power of the architect or developer. Shadow studies should be used to help determine the desirable height of building on each side. Criteria should be based on the times of day and months of the year when sunlight is desired.

For example, if it is envisioned that local residents may want to stop on the square to grab coffee and a Danish on their way to work, or to have breakfast at the weekends, then sunlight should fall in the western part of the square at 9.00am for at least half the year (i.e. at equinox, March 20, September 22). This decision will determine the relationship between the height of buildings on the east of the square, and the E-W dimension of the square, and begin to determine the location of building uses.

To make the square a place where children can happily play in the afternoon especially when water is involved, sun across half the surface of the square will be desirable from 3.00 to 5.00pm for at least half the year. This will help to define the building heights on the south and west, and the dimensions of the square.

In a temperate zone, the north-east corner of the square which will receive sun from noon on throughout the year, will be the most favored spot for outdoor dining, especially in the evening. To facilitate people meeting on the square to relax after work over a glass of wine (around 5.00 or 6.00pm), sun will be desirable on the eastern edge of the square at the equinox. This will allow a bistro to catch the last rays for half the year as the sun begins to set, helping to define the E-W dimension and the heights of buildings on the west.

Catching the last rays of the sun

To ensure that there is no day during the year when sunlight fails to reach at lease some parts of the square, shadow studies throughout the day on solstice, December 22nd, will indicate which buildings may need to be lowered, or which dimensions of the square may need to be increased.

Wind:

In temperate climates, it is essential to protect the square from wind. Two factors are important here: to prevent movement of wind straight through the square, and to prevent downdraft onto the square from adjacent high buildings.

To prevent wind through the square, the openings from adjacent streets into the square should not be so large, nor located on opposite sides of the square that they funnel wind straight across the square. This can be particularly deleterious if the openings/exits are lined up with the direction of the prevailing wind. For temperate climates, this is an argument for narrow entrances, angled in different directions around the square.

In tropical climates, the goal may be to encourage a breeze. This requires a different design approach. The sense of enclosure can still be achieved with more porous encircling walls. Buildings with commercial activity at ground level may need to be perforated with many entrance ways to allow air movement through the square in all directions. To increase air movement, a loggia, open arcade, or trees can provide visual enclosure, but they need to be constantly activated by permanent markets or stalls in order to enliven the square. 

In temperate climates tall buildings adjacent to the square should be avoided because they may funnel wind down the façade creating small whirlwinds and dust eddies. Buildings above 6 stories should also be avoided because they are detrimental to the human scale of the square.

Rain, snow:

Even in inclement weather, in rain and snow, a square can still beckon residents by offering sheltered places to sit outside. Setbacks at ground floor, arcades and  awnings provide varying degrees of protection from harsh weather (see also Part 7). These can be amplified where necessary by outdoor heating, cushioned seating, blankets and wind breaks.

Traffic-free:

Traffic makes a square inhospitable, especially for children and elders. A successful neighborhood square must be traffic free, at least for the major part of the day when most frequented by pedestrians. If delivery vehicles must drive onto the square, it is usual to permit delivery only until 10.30am.

The square should not be bounded by any street that carries traffic. There are two major reasons for this caveat: the first concerns the negative impact of traffic, especially on social life and children’s play; the second concerns the importance of having active building facades defining the edges of the square.

The danger that a child might run into the traffic inhibits a parent from allowing children to play freely on the square. Jamison Square in Portland provides a dramatic example of this. The square (or “squark”, i.e. half square, half park) is a beautiful place with a very long stepped stone waterfall that gushes into a large, shallow basin, then stops, the water drains away, before the cycle begins again. Naturally, it has become the favorite playground for many children in Portland.

However, despite the fact that the water area is visually encircled by the stone waterfall to the east, and a ring of grass and trees to the west, parents hover a few feet behind their child, and snatch him up if he ventures too close to the edge. This is because three sides of the square are bounded by streets.

Traffic noise inhibits conversation, especially for those with less than perfect hearing. Without the noise and potential dangers of traffic, all our senses open up. We can hear more clearly the voice of our companion, footfalls across the square, birdsong, or music from a nearby dwelling. We are able to see our surroundings more clearly. We can appreciate the beauty of the architecture and trees, the facial features of passing strangers, and the display in a shop window. We can smell the fragrance of flowers or the aroma from a bakery.

Moving traffic and parked cars do not enliven a square in the way that a row of small shops, cafes and restaurants surmounted by homes with windows and balconies do. Indeed, a street with traffic creates a severe barrier between the building frontages that are needed to activate the square and the open space of the square. Without the intervening street, cafes and restaurants can extend their business into the square, allowing customers to people watch, or oversee their children who are allowed free range within the square. Those walking on the square can easily see friends at surrounding cafes and wander over for a chat. Those window-shopping can meander across the square to see what is new in their favorite shop. The ease with which pedestrians can access shops within a traffic-free area has been shown by numerous studies to increase economic turnover.

When unencumbered by the noise and dangers of traffic, residents can stand and talk, turn to greet a passing friend, stroll slowly arm in arm, stop and watch children playing, hold a spontaneous conversation with an acquaintance, and introduce a friend to a friend. This freedom to be spontaneous and sociable on one’s feet is an inestimable benefit of a traffic-free square. It is an acquired social skill that can be learned by all in a hospitable context.

Please see: Part 5. Entrances, Thresholds