What makes a good plaza?

Blackbird

Active Member
Joined
Feb 2, 2014
Messages
610
Reaction score
712
Hey, all! I was inspired by this exchange from a few days back from the City Hall Revamp thread:

Green spaces and concrete/brick plaza have their own uses in a busy city.
In theory yes, but there are a lot of factors keeping City Hall Plaza from becoming like Alexanderplatz.

In other words, I agree that green spaces and plazas have their own uses. However, there are good parks and bad parks as well as good plazas and bad plazas. City Hall Plaza is a bad plaza.
Rather than detract from the real conversation about the actual revamp there, I figured I'd start a new thread to discuss what makes a plaza good or bad.

Here are some plazas that I think are really nice:
Nuremburg
Prague
Brussels
Berlin
Krakow

Here are plazas that I don't like:
Boston
Toronto
Albany
Hartford

Obviously there are some themes here. The plazas that I like tend to be (or at least they seem to be) organically formed with the growth of the city. Alexanderplatz in Berlin may be an important exception. Meanwhile all the plazas I don't like tend to be planned.

The plazas that I like tend to either have some of the city's most ornate architecture (like in Brussels or Krakow) or retail (like in Berlin). If Post Office Square had been preserved, it might've wound up like the Brussels plaza, small, intimate, with nice architecture, but that ship has sailed. In form, City Hall Plaza seems like it could recreate the vibe of the more open European plazas, but it doesn't.

Unless I'm misremembering, the current plan to revamp City Hall Plaza is to add some trees and pretend it's a park. Is there really no hope of it ever becoming a nice plaza where people want to spend time even when there isn't an event happening?
 

Shepard

Senior Member
Joined
Mar 20, 2009
Messages
3,519
Reaction score
60
1) enclosure - needs to feel enclosed and intimidate. Enclosure height needs to be scaled to the size of the plaza. Bracket buildings in Alexanderplatz for example. I expect if you really study this you will find there’s a “golden ratio.”
2) activity - retail, restaurants, entertainment, transportation, employment, residences - all within the plaza. If not a 24-hour space at least an 18-hour space.
3) purpose - the great European plazas give off a “beating heart” vibe that’s more than just the sum of its enclosure/scale + all the activities above. It’s an object or civic pride. It anchors the city. It’s a landmark for both residents and visitors. It’s on the cover of tour books. If it disappeared from the city, the city would not be the same - it would be greatly diminished.

Edit to add - GCP does all of this exactly wrong. No enclosure (Centre Plaza even curves the wrong way). Few active uses. An object of civic ridicule..
 

JeffDowntown

Senior Member
Joined
May 28, 2007
Messages
3,580
Reaction score
967
1) enclosure - needs to feel enclosed and intimidate. Enclosure height needs to be scaled to the size of the plaza. Bracket buildings in Alexanderplatz for example. I expect if you really study this you will find there’s a “golden ratio.”
2) activity - retail, restaurants, entertainment, transportation, employment, residences - all within the plaza. If not a 24-hour space at least an 18-hour space.
3) purpose - the great European plazas give off a “beating heart” vibe that’s more than just the sum of its enclosure/scale + all the activities above. It’s an object or civic pride. It anchors the city. It’s a landmark for both residents and visitors. It’s on the cover of tour books. If it disappeared from the city, the city would not be the same - it would be greatly diminished.

Edit to add - GCP does all of this exactly wrong. No enclosure (Centre Plaza even curves the wrong way). Few active uses. An object of civic ridicule..
Great plazas also often have an architectural centerpiece that is a destination in its own right. GCP has City Hall :rolleyes:
 

HenryAlan

Senior Member
Joined
Dec 15, 2009
Messages
2,713
Reaction score
873
Great plazas also often have an architectural centerpiece that is a destination in its own right. GCP has City Hall :rolleyes:
Right, that plus the items Shepard mentions. We don't even have to leave Boston to see examples of good plazas. Copley Square is fantastic and has the four elements identified in this thread. Interestingly, if the centerpiece and purpose of the plaza are really good, the surrounding architecture and commercial spaces diminish in importance. Thinking now about the Christian Science plaza, which I think is another Boston gem. It's all about the plaza itself, as the surrounding neighborhood is not very interesting or inviting. But there is the Mother Church, the reflecting pool, and boom, there's a great and enjoyable open space.
 

Norval Elliot

New member
Joined
Jun 3, 2019
Messages
80
Reaction score
43
A great plaza is one that affords an escape from motorized traffic and stimulates people-watching. Rockefeller Center in New York, arguably the most successful plaza in the country, employs multiple levels to create an inviting space in which to watch others shop, skate, linger, or just walk through.
 

theSil

Active Member
Joined
Apr 4, 2016
Messages
224
Reaction score
274
I'm failing to find any good discussion on them with some cursory googling, but one generalized form of successful plazas are the Plaza de Armas. Across the Latin American world, many cities are centered on a historical Plaza de Armas, which are human scale (some run a bit large), surrounded by retail and outdoor dining enabled by the warm climate, feature vegetation, and are anchored by focal point (usually a cathedral).

See:

Havana
Santiago
Small town version in Colombia

Even in the US we have a few examples that follow the style. In particular, before Jackson Square was Jackson Square in New Orleans, it was the French city's Place d'Armes and the Spanish city's Plaza de Armas. Looking across from St. Louis Cathedral has a very similar feel to the examples from the Spanish speaking world.
 

Blackbird

Active Member
Joined
Feb 2, 2014
Messages
610
Reaction score
712
1) enclosure - needs to feel enclosed and intimidate. Enclosure height needs to be scaled to the size of the plaza. Bracket buildings in Alexanderplatz for example. I expect if you really study this you will find there’s a “golden ratio.”
2) activity - retail, restaurants, entertainment, transportation, employment, residences - all within the plaza. If not a 24-hour space at least an 18-hour space.
3) purpose - the great European plazas give off a “beating heart” vibe that’s more than just the sum of its enclosure/scale + all the activities above. It’s an object or civic pride. It anchors the city. It’s a landmark for both residents and visitors. It’s on the cover of tour books. If it disappeared from the city, the city would not be the same - it would be greatly diminished.

Edit to add - GCP does all of this exactly wrong. No enclosure (Centre Plaza even curves the wrong way). Few active uses. An object of civic ridicule..
Number 1 would be easy-ish to start addressing for GCP. Why don't they build a landscaper along Cambridge with retail facing into the Plaza?

I'm failing to find any good discussion on them with some cursory googling, but one generalized form of successful plazas are the Plaza de Armas. Across the Latin American world, many cities are centered on a historical Plaza de Armas, which are human scale (some run a bit large), surrounded by retail and outdoor dining enabled by the warm climate, feature vegetation, and are anchored by focal point (usually a cathedral).

See:

Havana
Santiago
Small town version in Colombia

Even in the US we have a few examples that follow the style. In particular, before Jackson Square was Jackson Square in New Orleans, it was the French city's Place d'Armes and the Spanish city's Plaza de Armas. Looking across from St. Louis Cathedral has a very similar feel to the examples from the Spanish speaking world.
I've never been, but Plaza de la Constitucion in Mexico City looks awesome!

Right, that plus the items Shepard mentions. We don't even have to leave Boston to see examples of good plazas. Copley Square is fantastic and has the four elements identified in this thread. Interestingly, if the centerpiece and purpose of the plaza are really good, the surrounding architecture and commercial spaces diminish in importance. Thinking now about the Christian Science plaza, which I think is another Boston gem. It's all about the plaza itself, as the surrounding neighborhood is not very interesting or inviting. But there is the Mother Church, the reflecting pool, and boom, there's a great and enjoyable open space.
I feel like the space around Faneuil Hall and the Quincy Market kind of acts like a Plaza for Boston, even if it's kind of narrow.
 

DBM

Senior Member
Joined
Oct 28, 2012
Messages
1,007
Reaction score
276
In normal non-pandemic times, with decent weather, Summer Street Plaza, Irish Famine Memorial Plaza, and the Plaza at MTower all succeed spectacularly well.

The proof is in the Google streetviews--just look at this vibrancy, vitality, bustle. Shepard captured the key ingredients a few posts above perfectly well; no need to over-analyze beyond his encapsulation, I think.
 

Blackbird

Active Member
Joined
Feb 2, 2014
Messages
610
Reaction score
712
In normal non-pandemic times, with decent weather, Summer Street Plaza, Irish Famine Memorial Plaza, and the Plaza at MTower all succeed spectacularly well.

The proof is in the Google streetviews--just look at this vibrancy, vitality, bustle. Shepard captured the key ingredients a few posts above perfectly well; no need to over-analyze beyond his encapsulation, I think.
I feel the same about these as I do the area around Faneuil Hall. Like, yes they're vibrant spaces with brick/stone flooring, but I feel like in order to really be a "plaza" it has to be much bigger and more open then these examples.

A few more, large plazas: Plaza Mayor in Madrid and Markt in Bruges.
 

HenryAlan

Senior Member
Joined
Dec 15, 2009
Messages
2,713
Reaction score
873
In normal non-pandemic times, with decent weather, Summer Street Plaza, Irish Famine Memorial Plaza, and the Plaza at MTower all succeed spectacularly well.
I agree, those are great areas for human activity, but I think they are at most, what might be termed pocket plazas. What about them works well? What might scale up from these examples to help the large plaza just down the street from these?
 

ra84970

Active Member
Joined
Jun 23, 2020
Messages
312
Reaction score
258
When I think of great plazas, I think - where is the place in a city where would one organically set-up a giant jumbotron to watch a broadcast of the World Cup, Eurovision (in European contexts), the Super Bowl (on a fair winter day here in New England), or the World Series. Or a place where people would want to come to after dinner to stroll and socialize.

Boston City Hall Plaza could be that. To be honest, it's at least 2 plazas big from that perspective and that's probaby the biggest problem, in its current iteration is that the scale is too vast for creating that kind of space. Around the City of Boston, other potential plazas need a lot of reallocation of space from vehicular movement and storage to effectively be those kinds of spaces -- Copley and Kenmore are clearly those places along Back Bay. To be honest, it even feels like some of the "outer" Boston neighborhoods could have that too, but for the overwhelming amount of surface given over to regional vehicular travel, local access, and vehicular storage.
 

bdurden

Senior Member
Joined
Jul 21, 2006
Messages
1,242
Reaction score
175
A great plaza is one that affords an escape from motorized traffic and stimulates people-watching. Rockefeller Center in New York, arguably the most successful plaza in the country, employs multiple levels to create an inviting space in which to watch others shop, skate, linger, or just walk through.
I suppose the same can be said about Quincy Market / Faneuil Hall.
 

kz1000ps

Senior Member
Joined
May 28, 2006
Messages
8,112
Reaction score
3,621
City Hall Plaza back during the 2006 World Cup was freaking amazing. I suppose that might've been the single biggest organic crowd I've been in and, despite that plaza's best efforts to repel any and all humane sensibilities, it created for a truly electric environment and some great memories.
 

Top