Philosophy and Organization 

Philosophy and Organization

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Plaza Gallery

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The influential reference book People Places provides a useful definition of a plaza that brings out many of the characteristics of the spaces selected for this website, and it helps limit our scope:

For our purposes, a plaza is defined as a mostly hard-surfaced, outdoor public space from which cars are excluded. Its main function is a place for strolling, sitting, eating, and watching the world go by. Unlike a sidewalk, it is a place in its own right rather than a space to pass through. [1]

An excellent book on the plazas of New Mexico provides more of a community emphasis: "the idea of a plaza still resonates in the human imagination as a place where residents gather to celebrate, or to sit quietly in the shade and contemplate the passing parade." [2]


We have also included in this website some large indoor spaces that provide some of the same features as plazas. Several historic train stations, for example, have been adapted to function as public places, in addition to continuing to serve as train stations. Transportation connections are also important elements of some of the outdoor plazas selected. The use of public transportation is an essential part of the "New Urbanism" movement that tries to make cities more livable.


Motivating Philosophy

Most human beings instinctively seek attractive spaces. Ideally these locations would be close to our places of work or to our homes, so that we can enjoy them often. Some desire to use these places for social interaction, while others prefer tranquility. A variety of styles of places can meet these needs, from simple well-designed intersections to elaborate parks.

Many spaces are defined by their setting, such as the civic centers of small towns, church or college plazas, or plazas created and maintained by private corporations around their buildings. City planners can also create an "anchor" for a space by locating in it a public institution such as a museum or a library or a transit station.[3]

In practice today, the largest usage of most public spaces is by workers on their lunch hours, and the most successful locations are the ones that can cater to this purpose, and are also able to attract couples or families in the evenings and weekends.

   Photo © Margarita Gavaldá Romagosa 

General Organization

A public space needs to save a sense of identity. If it has an anchor such as a church or a museum, this may provide a substantial part of its identity, and the rest of the design would have to be arranged around this function. Ideal space framing that accentuates identity can be provided by historic buildings, which may present unique architectures or just historic memories. Plaques with descriptions of these structures are very desirable.   There are many places that do not have such a distinct function. Some offer a combination of stores or vendors, others include an important transportation connection. A number of factors can strengthen a plaza:

A square should feature amenities that make it comfortable for people to use. A bench or waste receptacle in just the right location can make a big difference in how people choose to use a place. Lighting can strengthen a square’s identity while highlighting specific activities, entrances, or pathways. Public art can be a great magnet for children of all ages to come together. Whether temporary or permanent, a good amenity will help establish a convivial setting for social interaction.[4]

The project for Public Spaces recommends engaging the "edges" or surrounding neighborhood of a plaza: "If the outer edges of a public space include a diverse neighborhood with a range of institutions that all feel connected to the space, then people will have a reason to come to the area both during the day and in the evening, on weekdays and weekends."[5]

   Photo © Margarita Gavaldá Romagosa 


As the Project for Public Spaces points out, "a well-managed space is generally beyond the scope of the average city parks or public works department, which is why partnerships have been established to operate most of the best locations. These partnerships seek to supplement what the city can provide with funding from diverse sources..."[6] Partners can provide critical support in starting a plaza project or in long term maintenance. Any "anchor" that is part of the plaza, such as a public institution or a participating vendor would be a natural partner. Other possible partners that are not so obvious may be advertisers in the plaza or nearby businesses.[7]

Ideally some partners may provide funding or labor sources. Cafes and other businesses at the location could pay for at least some of their own frontage work. Even street vendors could help with cleaning and general surveillance.[8]  Some partners may be of help by sponsoring special programs and periodic events.


For a public space to be successful, there has to be someone in charge: "Good managers become so familiar with the patterns of how people use the park that waste receptacles get emptied at just the right time and refreshment stands are open when people most want them. Good managers create a feeling of comfort and safety in a square, fixing and maintaining it so that people feel assured that someone is in charge." [9]

Some very successful spaces operate with around the clock security and cleaning staff. Of course more modest arrangements are also possible. Some business employees or independent vendors may provide some on-site supervision, providing that they now how to quickly reach the responsible manager. But it must be obvious to anyone present at the location that there is someone that can handle eventualities.

Responsible public space managers must be aware of maintenance needs. Anything physical will wear out eventually, and the appearance of neglect will quickly doom a place. Landscaping must be trimmed regularly, making sure that it does not provide unwanted hiding places.[10]


This website is not a professional guide, but an editing of existing referenced material for educational purposes. The website author assumes no responsibility for any problems resulting from using the material presented in this website.

[1] Clare Cooper Marcus and Carolyn Francis eds., People Places (NY: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1998), 14

[2] Chris Wilson and Stefanos Polyzoides eds., The Plazas of New Mexico (San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 2011), 14

[3] Mark  C. Childs, Squares (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2004), 52.

[4] Project for Public Spaces: Ten Principles for Successful Squares

[5] University of Idaho Community Research: Public Plazas

[6] Project for Public Spaces: Ten Principles for Successful Squares

[7] Project for Public Spaces, How to Turn a Place Around (Project for Public Spaces, 2000), 44.

[8] Project for Public Spaces, Managing downtown public spaces (Chicago: American Planning Association, 1984), 32.

[9] Project for Public Spaces: Eleven Principles for Creating Great Community Places

[10] University of Idaho Community Research: Public Plazas