Size and shape are only two of the requirements for successful public plazas. The most attractive plazas are also properly located, furnished, and related to adjacent buildings. These matters poorly done deal death to public spaces.
Successful plazas are located in or next to the most frequented parts of town and can be seen from many nearby areas. They are also attached to surrounding buildings, which contribute to their liveliness.
Where roads run between a public space and adjacent buildings, the space is little used. This is true even if the space is right sized and handsome. Consider New England villages, where town commons full of trees, walkways, lawns, benches, and bandstands are ringed by traffic and gutted of visitors.
Attractive plazas also have irregular edges with niches, many doorways, facades that are mostly windows, and close-up detailing on the ground level and second story. They are oriented toward the best views and have good sightlines. Trees, awnings, raised planters, heaters moderate the climate. They are lit graciously at night. Traffic noise and fumes are minimized by slow speeds, distance to cars, or freedom from them. Of course, except for size, these characteristics also describe the best walkways.
These public settings invite more than nearby residents and passersby. They become meeting places for the elderly and recreation areas for children, who can engage the fountains, building edges, and gardens—the infrastructure of the city—as their playground, without requiring expensive, specially dedicated play areas. Since children and the elderly have more discretionary time than workers, they can make a disproportionate contribution to the liveliness of properly designed town plazas.
Recently created urban squares are often empty because they have the wrong character. (They also tend to be too large.) Adjacent skyscrapers wall off the plaza with flat, blank, opaque facades and few doors. Their towering height shades the open space, whips the wind, and creates violent downdrafts. Seating is backless, armless, and adrift from any edge.
Such spaces are almost impossible to humanize, despite the belated, half-hearted addition of awnings, umbrellas, tables, and chairs. People dismiss sites which disregard their needs.
Urban plazas shaped around special sites add unique attractiveness to design. Especially powerful features include groves of trees, slopes, and water edges. Hills define Rome, but fountains and stairs define its public spaces. The slope of the Sienna’s Piazza del Campo provides views from all sides and dry, amphitheater-like seating directly on the paving. (Dry because the slope serves to drain the plaza, as well.)
Responding to unique surroundings is a matter of policy as well as design. Portland, Maine’s height restrictions echo the saddleback ridge above its harbor. Denver requires new developments to maintain open sightlines to the front wall of the Rockies that forms the city’s backdrop.
Slope and elevation are so attractive that they are increasingly being constructed where they are lacking. Permanent bleachers have been constructed in Times Square to provide viewing perches to watch the hum and fizz of traffic and city life on all sides. Even on the High Line, already roughly two stories above the street, rising bleachers have been added at one point along the path for resting and watching passersby.
With appropriate size, shape, location, and character, parks and plazas become lively spaces, places that extend invitations to linger and enjoy the life engendered there.