Spaniards are obsessed with public squares.
The ubiquitous plaza, a Spanish architectural feature, permeates the built environment – from cosmopolitan cities like Madrid, to tiny villages such as Montecorto, the mighty plaza is the heartbeat of the community. The prime gathering spot for locals and tourists alike, plazas come in all shapes and sizes and are used for everything from children playing football among the pigeons, to grand stages for outdoor concerts.
And for those of us who just want to look, plazas create delightful postcard backdrops as you sip your freshly made ‘cafe con leche’ and casually watch the beautiful people stroll by.
And in Canada we don’t seem to build them (though we design a mean public park).
Despite current planning trends and their new urbanist leanings, the plaza as a tool for public space remains woefully underused… though perhaps the cafe-sipping innocence of the plaza is not all it appears to be.
For starters, there is some debate about the design origins of the Spanish plaza itself. Prominent in both Spain and Latin America, it is unclear whether it is a Spanish/European concept imposed upon new world colonies, or rather a design based on indigenous architectural plans. As we all know, history is written by the victors, and while European architectural history takes ownership of plaza design and construction, competing evidence shows that the plaza came about as a result of Spanish ‘exploration.’
Not that the concept of a public sphere is limited to Spain or Latin America. While certainly a hallmark of Spanish architecture, plazas are commonplace across Europe, as well as the Middle East.
So the jury’s still out on the origins.
Even more interesting, however, is the role plazas can play in creating social and spatial boundaries, dividing people by nationality, race, class, ability and gender. Though plazas may appear to be simple public gathering spaces, they often have storied histories steeped in economical, political and class battles. Throughout time, certain populations have been permitted access to ‘public spaces’, while others have been prevented from participating.
Which sounds very abstract and academic, no?
However you may be familiar with boys (and young men) skateboarding through public squares, owning a section of the plaza for as long as they can, until authorities come through and ask them to leave.
This is interesting on two levels:
- Youth are often excluded from participating in public spaces as they choose, yet are not provided with viable alternatives (e.g. skateboarding parks) by which to exercise their right to participate in the public domain.
- When youth are provided with sport-friendly spaces (a growing trend), girls are often excluded from these very playspaces, if not formally, than through unintentional intimidation. Walk past any public sports field/court/ramp, and you will no doubt find the majority, if not all, participants are male. Now imagine you are a young girl wanting to play.
The reasons behind the aging and gendering of spaces are complicated, and demand both greater inclusiveness in existent spaces, and an increase in tailor-made spaces for marginalized groups (for example, what would a girl-friendly public space look like?). But there is no doubt that plazas are not as neutral as one might assume.
Historically the plaza has always performed an important function in public protest. As demonstrated so recently in Tahrir Square Cairo, a plaza can play a critical role in challenging authorities, especially the government of the day.
The irony of course is that these spaces are created by the very people being protested, and often actions such as protests and strikes result in the temporary closure of the public space, followed by a reopening where the space is policed to discourage undesirables. Ultimately plazas that do not fulfill the objectives of their creators can be devalued, and either redesigned, or access withheld from the public.
All of which is a reminder that in addition to being important recreational spaces, public spaces are critical components of public discourse, and must be protected, preserved, and fought for. While this might be obvious to those who work in the planning game, it is reminder that the politicization and privatization of public space happens everywhere, and can have potentially dangerous implications.
As the largest city in Canada, Toronto has two small public squares in the downtown core, Dundas Square and Nathan Phillips Square. Both plazas became gathering spaces during the G-20 protests in June 2010, however neither could accommodate the large number of demonstrators. Instead Queen’s Park (you guessed it, a public park) functioned as a makeshift plaza and was explicitly designated a public protest zone – perhaps a reflection of Canadian design priorities? Sadly the situation quickly deteriorated into a sea of violence as peaceful demonstrators were beaten and arrested without justification.
Just something to think about as you gaze over your steaming cup, relaxing amid the pigeons and the cobblestones…