Imagine yourself seated on a patio overlooking a large public square. You are enjoying evening drinks with some friends before you run a few errands on the plaza on your way home for the evening. While you are seated, an old acquaintance happens by on their way to pick up a few groceries. They sit down and join in the conversation for a little while, watching their child play at the fountain a short distance away. As the sun sets everyone pays their tab, says their good byes, and heads off in different directions.
This pleasant scene is merely a fictional picture for most residents in U.S. cities because we lack public plazas that proliferate throughout Europe. This is the focus of the book "Genius of the European Square." The authors analyze numerous squares located throughout Europe, including Germany, Italy, and Spain. Each of the sixteen squares separately analyzed have both successes and failures to glean inspiration from.
The book begins with what the European square has to offer. If you recall the scene from the beginning of this article, you were picturing daily social life on the European square. The interaction among users and the ability of the successful square to create spontaneous and planned encounters is common. As the book states the European square "promote[s] a wide range of encounters and relationships, of short and long duration, planned and unplanned, mostly without specific goals other than to be sociable."
This social interaction is severely lacking in American cities and is leading to serious race and equity problems. If we had the infrastructure to encourage interaction and bring diverse populations together, maybe we would not be so fearful of each other. In European squares "users encounter others different from themselves" which "may generate a rethinking and reevaluation of assumptions on which unfavorable or prejudiced reactions are based." We could use more public spaces that work to create unique interactions and help break down these types of uninformed assumptions.
Another benefit of the European square is the democratic value it creates. Most squares have city hall located in a prominent place on the square with a mix of uses surrounding it. This creates more access to city officials and opportunities to see and talk to them as they are out on the square. Another benefit is the democratic dialogue and civic engagement that is created on the square. With more in person discussions and debates, better understanding and expression of concerns occurs. "Only in public places open to all, where no individual may be excluded and where all have a right to be heard, can the greatest range of opinions be expressed, and the most varied experiences recounted."
The authors cover the European square extensively in this book and provide a template for design that can be translated to the U.S. The concepts of democracy, social interaction, building design, and mixed use buildings are not new to our cities. We can learn from centuries of use and evolution in public squares throughout Europe. It is definitely worth considering at a time when civic engagement, democracy, and equality are questionable at best.