Adventures in Squareland

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May '13 - Feb '16

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    cultures of public space

    Alec Perkins
    Aug 2, '13 7:32 PM EST

    In most cities and towns in Mexico, there is a zócalo or central plaza. It's an open space, usually loosely programmed, traditionally used for markets, celebrations, protests, ceremonies, relaxing, and socializing. The zócalo is also usually surrounded by some of the most important buildings in the social functioning of the town, notably the main church, and the seat of local governance.

    Historically, it was derived from the Spanish hierarchical urban grid- the status of the building and the inhabitants increased with proximity to the open square at the center. The hierarchical form of the grid made a center. It's an interesting contrast to the Jeffersonian grid used in the planning of many US cities, which was much more egalitarian- since all the squares were equal in importance, it severely decreased the strength of any space as 'center'.

    In the hillside town of Cuetzalan, the zócalo is broken into a series of terraces and steps:

    1 is the main church of the town

    2 is the main public building which includes government offices, city hall, a small tourist center, and some ATMs. To the west and north are restaurants and bars, to the south, uphill from the zocalo, hotels.

    The churchyard B is largely unprogrammed, including only benches along the walls, and a large pole in the center which indigenous dancers ascend for the famous flying dance.

    The main point of access to the churchyard is through the lower plaza A which is where there were some cart vendors set up, things for sale on blankets, and also a large trampoline for kids. The road which passes by A continues north steeply downhill so the northwest corner has a great view of the hills across the valley.

    A few feet higher is a public garden plaza, C, with a high gazebo in the center and a lot of low plantings and a few trees. Continuous seating along the planters coupled with the shade meant a lot of people were sitting here. The planters were centered in the plaza, leaving ample open space around.

    Marching uphill, D is actually a series of wide steps which could function as amphitheater seating for events at the base or a quartet playing in the gazebo. During market days, the steps fill with rows of blankets and vendors selling fruits, pottery, flowers, and housewares.

    At the top of the steps, E is a flat avenue which connects one of the main streets leading in to the center, and has a series of shallow stores along the north side, tucked into the hill.

    One must then climb a flight of stairs on either side to ascend to F, not really part of the plaza, but still important as an overlook and passenger drop-off zone. From there, you have a great view of the entire zocalo stepping down below you, and the guardrail is wide enough that one can comfortably sit on it.

    Also vital is the wide path and stairs running along the west side of the zocalo which joins the various plazas together and connects the major streets which lead to the zocalo. On market days, people drink and eat in the shade in front of the restaurants and bars, and on the other side of the path, vendors sell meat, vegetables, fried dishes, and small handcrafts.

    Some things I can lean from Cuetzalan:

    Provide a mix of programmed and unprogrammed space.

    People like to look at people, terracing allows stairs which make things more interesting and inviting, but also allows the people in higher terraces to get a better view of the lower terraces, and it exposes the activities on the higher terraces to the people on the lower terraces.

    Lots of seating in different spots with different characteristics. Public, intimate, sunny, shady, hardscape, softscape.

    Don't make the the big public space the only connector. It's not an intuitive leap, since you want to have a lot of people moving through spaces to make it lively and get people to engage with it. But sometimes people just want to get from A to B without browsing the flowers or stopping to chat. If a space becomes so programmed and slow and full of people, people will begin to avoid it as a bottleneck. Offer public space as an incentive and delightful temptation, rather then something that is required to plow through.

    Reading from Jane Jacobs, adjacency is vital. The church and administrative center are vital to the functioning of the city, so people are constantly coming and going. Aadditionally, the restaurants and bars and hotels feed off of and enhance the pedestrian traffic coming to the Zocaló.

    Provide a plethora of ways in and out but only a few major ones.

    The biggest question left for me, however, would this kind of space work in the US? I've seen so many of my classmates, and myself included, include public outdoor spaces in our site designs or masterplans labeled variously as "community space", "public plaza," or worst, "event space." When was the was last time you deliberately went to a large public outdoor space in a US city? What kind of events do you expect people to have?

    One big problem is that for these kind of sucessful vibrant public spaces, is you need a high population density and more importantly, a pedestrian center. Cuetzalan is not a city. It's a pretty small town with a couple thousand inhabitants, about the size of my high school. However, the town is compact enough that you can walk anywhere and get everything you need. The zocalo works because there's daily foot traffic using the space and passing through the space. US cities have been effectively been gutted as walkable environments by the ravages of car culture. The only exceptions I've seen are hyper dense cities and tourist towns on the northeast coast, and usually the tourist towns only work at a pedestrian level is because there was enough interest in  preservation in place to maintain the pre-automobile urban fabic.

    Another problem is the nature of commercial activity in the US. Our outdoor market spaces are limited to occational and small farmers markets. For one, there's no demand. Everyone buys everything at WalMart or Target, and they get thier fruits and vegetables from the supermarket.

    The other problem is in our hyper-beaurocratic sanitized US, you need a permit for everything. I frankly don't know Suzy's lemonade stand is able to operate without a certificate from the department of public safety and welfare. Even the hot dog carts have to display certifications. The amount of hoops is a huge discouragement to the causal weekend food chef.

    On top of that, there's taxes, which adds another layer of beaurocracy and record keeping. Now, I am all for taxes, but I think there should be a threshold at which a transaction is nontaxable. The economy of the small transactions which make the plaza here work would be drowned in paperwork. Literally, the ice cream vendor would spend more money on paperwork and tracking receipts then he would get in revenue from his product.

    And then you'd still have to clear whatever zoning or municipal ordinances describe what may or may not happen in public parks and plazas. I would imagine that you can't, for example, set up a trampoline in a public park in the US and then charge visitors to use it. Ok, fine, but then you lose that amenity, and you also lose the potential for activities and other amenities from that amenity. If you dont have interesting things happening in public spaces, people just won't use them. Especially since in the US, we have historically separated everything. There's a part of the city where the government is. There's another part where the parks are. There's a bar district. There's a restaurant district. If you're lucky, there's an "Entertainment District" which is a combination of bars, restuarants, and a movie theater.

    I used to think that Americans just didnt know how to use public space. The real issue is that we never needed to, so we never bothered. We have surrogates for all the things a zocalo provides. I think if I plopped the zocalo and the surrounding buildings down in any American city, it would be a dismal failure. Even if I surrounded it with the code-required sea of parking, it would still be a failure because nobody walks in the US, and there's only a few places were public transportation works well. Americans would read and practice the zocalo as either an Event Space for special events, or as a kind of quaint entertainment center with a church. Like Main Street USA in Disneyland, itself a bitter if unintentional parody of dense, pedestrain urban centers.

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Urban and architectural explorations from Mexico City to Stuttgart Germany through the eyes of a iterant architectural designer

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