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The Hidden Origin of the Town Square

Few modern human beings, especially those living in cities, would have trouble describing the purpose of a “Town Square”. These man-made outdoor spaces are commonplace in virtually all cultures in some form. Town Squares are natural gathering places. This seems to be true for the simplest countryside Courthouse lawn to the most expansive urban piazza in a bustling metropolis. The term “Town Square” suggests a smaller, more intimate form of urban open space, more suited to a “town”-sized city. But the term can be more expansively applied to urban plazas of any scale. Given their public nature, and the need for accommodating crowds and gatherings, they are usually extensively hard-scaped and well tended – with paved surfaces, durable materials and structured plantings.

Town Squares are typically good orienting points for those moving about a town or city, and can provide a welcome place for getting ones bearings or arranging to meet other people. They also provide a permanent place for the exchange of ideas and conversation within a public context. They provide opportunity for the display of merchandise for sale and for a place to seek lodging or food. In the modern urban setting, Town Squares also generally provide a welcome separation of pedestrian traffic from vehicular traffic. Objects of importance are often enshrined in a Town Square with fountains or monuments or historical plaques commemorating an event. It seems that Town Squares are just natural places for gathering and memorializing.

The benefits of the Square as an urban planning device were marginalized and seemingly forgotten during a period of growth and the incorporation of modern design theory from the ‘50’s through the ‘80’s in the last century, giving way to a fascination with new building technologies and “efficiency”. The resulting urban landscape often became a secondary consideration, and the anonymous and impersonal streets and parks accompanying these gleaming developments soon revealed that something was missing in how our public domains were being designed. The Town Square, along with other traditional concepts, has returned to the tool kit of Planners and Designers of the last couple of decades, most notably through the work of what is now ironically called “New Urbanism”. But the Town Square never really went away, and the arrangement remains a standard component of urban settings around the world.

It is generally accepted Urban Planning lore that the modern form of the Town Square can be traced back to the very beginning of human settlements, at least 6000 years ago. As ancient social groups began to establish permanent settlements in place of the migratory hunting and gathering lifestyle that had formed the human survival model for millennia, a different kind of travel among people became established. Permanent destinations inhabited by humans became the driving force behind travel. These destinations naturally established well-defined intersections at these proto-urban sites, and the crossroads of these travel routes became the place to be. The need to trade, to barter, to exchange information, to service the needs of travelers, and to see and be seen, established a public area within the context of the community. These ancient open spaces served many important purposes, just as they do today, and were quite likely significant incubators for many formative ideas in pre-history such as Writing, Mathematics, and the development of Language. The importance of these public places continued throughout the course of Antiquity and many of our most cherished Town Squares are those left by Ancient civilizations such as the Greeks and the Romans. As these early urban centers grew in size and complexity, ancillary functions such as housing and storage moved out from the hub, leaving the all-important center of town as the public “square”. This scenario is not hard to imagine and seems to be a very plausible explanation of how the Town Square came about.

But this description of how the Town Square came to be doesn’t really speak to why the Town Square is such a ubiquitous urban construct. Why this particular human response to the pressures that were causing its development? Clearly a natural set of circumstances worked to establish why it had to come about, but not why it came about in the form it did. For example why not have the gathering place “across the road”? Or why shouldn’t the village be separated a short distance from all the action and unknowns that the multitude of travelers brought with them? This would seem to be more “controllable”. Why bring everyone right into the center of Town, isn’t this less secure? Why isn’t the arrangement linear?

These hypothetical questions are not to challenge the prevailing view of how the Town Square came about or what its purposes are, but to suggest that there may be an underlying, behavioral reason for the Town Square and why it serves our purposes so well. The answer to why our Squares work so well and serve so many important purposes may lie – in the Circle.

When human beings, indeed many animals, sense something is important, they tend to “circle it up”. The arrangement of a circle in human activities implies both protection and significance at the same time. This seemingly “hard-wired” response to the arrangement of structures is evident all over the Globe. The remains of many Neolithic dwelling sites indicate a circular arrangement was employed for the individual homes that defined it. Even today, the villages of some Tribal communities in Africa for example, are arranged in a circle with all the dwelling entrances facing toward the center where communal activities take place. These arrangements are not the works of Urban Planners-they are instinctive.

Examples of this behavior of “encirclement” abound in nature. Bison and other large animals like Elephants will tend to instinctively form an outward facing circle around their young when faced with a threat from a stalking predator. The expression “circle the wagons” is no linguistic accident. A circular arrangement with its absence of corners and optimum surface to area ratio is highly defensible from any point along its arc, both from outside and from within. In his now Seminal book “Defensible Space”, Architect Oscar Newman wrote – “The spatial layout of the multi-family dwelling, from the arrangement of the building grounds to the interior grouping of apartments, achieves defensible space when residents can easily perceive and control all activity taking place within it.” Newman was specifically addressing residential development of course, but the principle applies to Town Squares as well. The enclosure of the structures surrounding many Urban Squares provides for such control and perception.

The circle also seems to be a universal expression of something going on that is important or inwardly focused. Large conference rooms for World Diplomatic assemblies often take on such a circular arrangement. The circular “huddle” of the Football team before a play similarly establishes an important next step in the game, shared by only those comprising the circle. Indigenous people gather tribal members in ceremonial circles for dances, or conference and so on. Not only does being a part of the circle imply importance, but also suggests a sense of equivalence or communion among the participants. Stonehenge is thought to be about astronomical alignments, but its form is circular, not linear. Though the alignment with celestial occurrences is clear at Stonehenge, its arrangement implies that gatherings took place there thousands of years ago in conjunction with the Astronomical events.

So how do we get from “Circle” to “Square”? The jump from one to the next is a straightforward geometric extension. The “Circle within a Square” is an archetypal arrangement dating back thousands of years. A Square represents the next most “efficient” geometric form from the Circle with respect to the ratio of surface to length. But the origins of the transformation are more likely the result of simple convenience rather than Mathematics. In an extensive study of ancient stone dwellings in the Apulian region of Southeastern Italy, Edward Allen, in his book “Stone Shelters”, documented the progression of still standing round stone dwellings as they progressed from simple round stone shelters, to ones having squared off internal walls, and ultimately to more rectilinear shapes. Rectilinear forms evolved for practical reasons, but where needed, could still serve to enclose and focus in the same symmetrical manner as the Circle.

The Town Square represents an idealized form of urban organization. Over time and through circumstance, the Town Square has evolved into larger urban spaces as well, some not even square in shape at all. A more linear, rectangular plaza for example, often has a monument at one or both ends, reinforcing their importance and emphasizing lines of perspective. Washington DC’s National Mall is a classic example of such a variation. Classical Urban Planning in particular sought to form larger more complex urban public spaces, often emphasizing axial relationships among separate Squares and seeking to shape them into more comprehensive urban arrangements.

For the most part however, Town Squares and their larger metropolitan siblings all share the common characteristics so inherently personified in the Circle. They have a geometry that focuses significance and implies unification and a sense of common purpose. An arrangement of enclosure and public ownership with readily available sight-lines observable from many angles reinforces community oversight and accountability. The Town Square, whatever its ultimate shape, is a structural manifestation of the human psychological needs embodied in that primal Circle, the vestigial remnants of which persist today in the arrangement of these valuable urban constructs.