The square on the left was built in 1984 in the era of cars, Reagan, and Styx, and the square on the left was built roughly 700 years before that, in the era of knights, the Crusades, and the plague. What do Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square and Piazza del Campo in Siena, Italy have in common? Both are recognized as excellent public spaces; in fact the Project for Public Spaces ranked these squares in the top five in the world. How did each become great people places, given their different beginnings? Are there universal principles that govern good public spaces?
Before drawing parallels between the two squares, it’s important to acknowledge the differences. As the quick-and-dirty figure ground diagram shows below, the cities themselves are quite different. Portland is a traditional American grid city, with 200 foot squares checkering downtown. Siena is typical of all very old cities in Europe built before the car, with winding, narrow streets and a dense urban fabric. Pioneer Courthouse square looks like it was formed from an omission from the grid, while Piazza del Campo looks like it was carved out of the dense fabric.
Figure ground diagram of Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square and Siena’s Piazza del Campo
Whenever comparing anything in the urban United States with urban Europe, the big difference is the car. While the figure ground diagram shows the squares at roughly the same size, Pioneer Courthouse Square’s edge is dominated streets and traffic. Siena’s edge is given over to pedestrians, so the square comes to the buildings and the buildings are more incorporated into the façade of the square. Portland, to their credit, has tried to fix this problem in their newest downtown square Director Park, where the paving treatment of the streets around the edge match the square.
The single most important ingredient to any successful public square is people, and both of these squares have them in spades. As the renowned urbanist William H. Whyte said:
What attracts people most, it would appear, is other people.
In Siena, the Piazza del Campo was and is a public market, the center for trading and commerce in the city. One of the reasons Pioneer Courthouse Square exists is because TriMet, the transit agency, insisted. The square has a transit information center and is almost entirely ringed with light rail and bus lines and stops. No matter what else is happening around it, Pioneer Courthouse Square will always remain lively as a sort of open-air Grand Central Station for Portland commuters.
The Palio di Siena
Great squares typically have anchors, buildings or institutions that serve as a focal point. Siena’s gorgeous city hall and bell tower serve that role for the Piazza del Campo, and the Pioneer Courthouse serves that role in Portland. The Pioneer Courthouse is one of the oldest existing federal buildings in the West and actively serves as a courthouse for the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Siena’s city hall has the advantage of presence, however. All of the buildings around the square are roughly the same height or shorter, so the city hall and it’s tall bell tower stand out more than the pint-size courthouse amongst all of the taller downtown buildings. In fact, Siena’s bell tower was the tallest building in Italy when built.
Both Siena and Portland’s squares benefit from their perceived centrality. If you were to ask a citizen of Siena where the “center of town” was, they would likely point you to the Piazza del Campo. The same would happen in Portland and Pioneer Courthouse Square, even though the square is nowhere near the actual geographic center of the city. There’s something important about a city’s center of perceptual gravity, and the public space that occupies that space will be more successful than one toward the periphery. Downtowns and town centers are places people want to be because that’s where everyone and everything else is. Both squares take advantage of this by hosting high-profile city events that cement their center-of-gravity status. Pioneer Courthouse Square seems to be in almost continuous use by various organizations and city functions, and twice a year the Piazza del Campo plays host to the famous Palio di Siena, a horse race around the edge of the square (right).
Simple design moves also enliven the squares. Both squares are located on slightly sloped sites. In Siena, the entire square itself is sloped toward city hall, giving the square directionality and making the ground more comfortable to sit on. Portland’s square uses a series of steps to give people a place to sit, enjoy lunch from a nearby food cart, and watch other people on the square. Both squares use brick paving, a material that is of a human scale. Can you imagine if the Piazza del Campo was paved in asphalt? A fine textured surface signals that people are welcome, not cars.
From these examples, it is clear that the ingredients to a successful public space are simple and timeless. People, institutional anchors, location, and person-sensitve design, when done right can come together to create a world-class space.