Principles for designing successful neighborhood squares

By Suzanne H. Crowhurst Lennard

A square’s success is dependent on the subtle interaction of many factors – the right proportions of the architectural frame, appropriate building uses and urban fabric, hospitable streetscaping, a pedestrian-friendly transportation policy, and good management of the square. When any one of these factors is lacking, the square fails to achieve its potential for social life, community and democratic engagement.

This is not a simple task. According to Klaus Humpert, Author of Entdeckung der Mittelalterlichen Stadtplanung, Professor of Architecture at the University of Stuttgart and former Director of Planning for the City of Freiburg, no new plaza or square built in the twentieth century has been as successful in generating social life as were the European marketplaces built in the Middle Ages. We have to re-learn how to do this.

The challenge is too important to be left to professionals in any one field. Not only are the combined skills of land-use planners, transportation planners, architects, urban designers and landscape architects required, but equally important are the community members. They are the experts who understand what social life they would like to see accommodated and what would draw people to the square, including themselves. Their investment, through participation in the planning and design process (providing their concerns are not ignored), is invaluable in ensuring the success of the square.

The task of each professional in the design process is to consider how they can use their professional tools to achieve the community’s social goals and to evaluate how each of their decisions will impact social life on the square.

Over the next few weeks, we shall post blogs covering the basic principles of designing successful neighborhood squares. These will address:

1.     Location: at the heart of the neighborhood

2.     Accessibility

3.     Appropriate size and shape

4.     The community’s “living room” 

5.     Entrances, thresholds

6.     Appropriate building heights

7.     Facades and setbacks

8.     Community-oriented building uses

9.     A hospitable setting  

10. Paving for pedestrians

11. Focal points, public art

12.  Urban space management 

Turn to Part 1: Location