Programmed squares vs. self-programming squares

Most successful city squares in the US are programmed with a variety of activities throughout the year – festivals, markets, food, music, and cultural events. This is a great service to the community, ensuring that all citizens have access to free city events, and providing a festive lunchtime setting for workers and shoppers. However, it incurs a major expense that city governments do not lightly shoulder in tight fiscal times.

There is another type of urban square that is economically and socially more sustainable because it is self-programmed. It does not require a full time manager to organize special events. The primary social function of this type of square is to support dialogue, be a catalyst for informal social interaction and familiarity among local citizens, foster inclusive community and civic engagement, and generate commerce. This type of square, while common in Europe, is virtually unknown in North America.

Programmed squares

The programmed square is often considered a city’s “iconic” heart. It becomes a favorite postcard image for visitors. In fine weather, office workers, shop assistants and shoppers take their lunch to the square. And it draws suburban residents downtown for concerts, festivals and other special events.

Apart from the people who arrive on the square together, most “others” are strangers. The absence of a frequent and regular pattern of use diminishes opportunities for social networking, meetings, and civic dialogue.

Throughout the summer, Portland’s Pioneer Square offers noontime concerts 6 days a week, a weekly farmers market, and on Friday evenings, “Flicks on the Bricks”, where the square becomes an outdoor movie theater. A plethora of other special events in July and August, 2012 included a Festa Italiana, an India Festival, a book festival, EV Celebration Day (Electronic Vehicles and charging devices), and “Churn-a-Ment” (Portland chefs compete to create the ultimate summer treat’ – ice cream), and a three day ‘Sand in the City’ festival that featured “majestic sand sculptures, interactive youth exhibits, live entertainment and more”. Throughout the winter there are events on the square almost every day, including a 5-day ale festival featuring more than 40 breweries, and dozens of carol concerts and other Christmas events.

Rapid City’s Main Street Square is highly programmed. Equipped with an elaborate stage, sound system and lighting, the square is programmed for musical and dance events with local bands, and visiting celebrities, and children’s groups to reflect every taste. Several days a week throughout the summer events such as the art and wine festival, microbrewery tastings, and a full music program take place. In addition, the granite blocks surrounding the square will be sculpted into works of art reflecting local natural and ethnic themes – an ongoing in situ program that will involve the community over several years and will incur a major expense.

Pioneer Square and Main Street Square require huge budgets for daily maintenance. Expenses include salaries for a full time manager and support staff, set up and tear down crews, specialists for lighting and sound systems, equipment for special sound and light effects, stages and screens, movable fences, tents, tables and chairs, and a place to store all the equipment. Some cities, such as Portland, now refuse to create new hard surfaced squares because of the expense they assume necessary to make them “successful”.

To find a European main square that is heavily programmed usually indicates that the city center is dying and desperate measures are being taken to draw citizens back. We were disappointed in 2000 to learn that St. Quentin in Northern France had introduced mid-summer and mid-winter festivals on their beautiful Place de l’hotel de ville. For several weeks during summer the square is filled with hundreds of tons of sand, palm trees, swimming pool, beach ball court, deck chairs, etc. In winter, an ice skating rink, Christmas tree, a Christmas market, carol singing and other events are organized during the weeks before Christmas. When we visited St. Quentin we understood the full explanation for these huge expenses. The city had undergone sprawling development: new shopping malls were rising around the periphery, causing shops and businesses in the city center to close. Many residents of the city center were moving to massive new housing blocks in the suburbs. This is a familiar story for Americans, but a comparatively new experience for a small (57,000) European city.

Self-programmed squares

The alternative to programmed squares is squares that are self-programming. Their success depends on the presence of essential design features and building uses around the square that provide necessary and pleasurable reasons for the community to use the square on a frequent basis. When all the right ingredients are present and provide a hospitable and attractive setting for social interaction, these squares require minimal expense to ensure success.

Many European main squares and some neighborhood squares still have these essential elements in place. There are shops serving everyday needs, cafes and restaurants around the perimeter, with apartments above, and a substantial residential population in nearby streets. One or two civic buildings keep citizens in touch with their representatives and generate democratic dialogue. A daily or weekly farmers market on the square throughout the year ensures regular use by large numbers of community members. The square is free of traffic, at least for most of the day, so it is pleasant to play, stroll and linger in the sun, or in shade from trees, arcades or awnings. Cafes and restaurants support the celebratory act of eating and drinking in a communal setting, and formal and informal seating create a hospitable setting for all.

These squares are socially and economically sustainable, requiring minimal expense other than regular cleaning and maintenance, and collection of fees for markets and occasional special events. The most successful examples of these self-programming squares include Freiburg’s Muenster Platz, Tuebingen’s Markt, Salamanca’s Plaza Mayor, Padova’s three central squares, Piazza della Frutta, Piazza delle Erbe and Piazza dei Signori, and some of the Venetian campi (such as Campo Santa Margherita, Campo Santa Maria Formosa, Campo San Giacomo dall’ Orio) (see Genius of the European Square)

Creating a new self-programming square

Portland now has the opportunity to create a new self-programming neighborhood square on the Con-way blocks in the NW neighborhood. The trucking company Con-way Inc has moved its headquarters to Ann Arbor but retains office space on the 25-acre site. It will be developed intensely with 1,100 to 1,500 housing units, 752,000 square feet of offices, and 146,000 square feet of retail. The site is on an existing "bicycle boulevard," and a proposed extension of the Portland Streetcar. It will be developed in 15 blocks, mostly typically small Portland 200-by-200-foot blocks. Five of the cross streets will be limited to pedestrians and bicycles.

Local residents requested a square that will function as the neighborhood’s heart, bringing together new and existing residents, and providing a place that will support social life, community and civic engagement.  In a recent survey, the community emphasized the following as very important or moderately important in making a square they would use on a frequent basis: safety for pedestrians (100%), cafes (99%), trees and natural elements (99%), steps, benches and seating (99%), farmers or public market (93%), artistic or visually appealing (92%), restaurants (89%), beautiful architecture (86%), automobile restrictions (87%), bakery (80%).

Con-way is fully supportive of the idea and has included this in the Master Plan for the 17-acre development project. They will maintain offices on the site and appreciate the fact that offering the best possible quality of life within walking distance helps them to attract the best and brightest new employees. They also understand that while providing land for the square reduces profits from buildable space, the square, if successful, will greatly enhance the value of the development as a whole. Con-way’s challenge is to find a developer for the square block who understands these principles, and who will be able to design a successful, self-programming square. They will need to engage the community to help them achieve this, and be willing to look to European examples for model solutions.