The Two Faces of Urban Public Squares

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A popular concert and festival in the Zócalo (Plaza de la Constitución), Mexico City, Mexico. The urban public square as a medium for artistic expression. Photo curtesy of
Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China. This square was the site of a deadly confrontation in 1989 between the Chinese military and university students seeking freedom of speech. It is also the largest public square in the world. Photo curtesy of Touropia.


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A mass of protestors in Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt. Tahrir Square was the site of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. Photo curtesy of Touropia.

Since the skeleton of the modern city began to ossify thousands of years ago, the public square has always been at its heart, pulsating the urban lifeblood of commerce, politics, religion, art, and culture throughout the city’s veiny streets. The physicality of the public square as an urban space is quite simple with only two essential ingredients – a breakup in a city’s density to allow for open space and people – but what occurs when those two elements are combined is a complex diversity of interactions, developments, chance-encounters, and confrontations. From Madrid’s Plaza Mayor and New York’s Times Square, to Rome’s Saint Peter’s Square and Mexico City’s Zocalo, the urban public square is an extraordinarily prominent, varied, contested, and beautiful part of the modern urban fabric. The square is where the joyous serendipity of everyday urban life can best be experienced, but also where revolutions begin when that urban life becomes threatened or oppressed.

Aerial view of the ancient Athenian Agora. Photo curtesy of The Athens Key.

1. Various forms of public squares have existed since people first began to congregate in dwellings, but it was the Greek Empire’s creation of the agora that made the public square an infamous and essential part of everyday urban life. When Greek civilization entered its classical period around 600 B.C., almost every city of ancient Greece had an agora (Glancey). The agora, which translates to ‘meeting place,’ was located at the center of the city, making it easy to access for peasants and aristocrats alike, cementing the idea of a truly public space, open to all classes of people (Whipps). The agora consisted of a large central square surrounded by public buildings with space for market stalls where merchants sold their wares.

An imaginary depiction of the Agora of ancient Athens at the time of Pericles.
An artist’s rendering of the ancient agora in Athens. Photo curtesy of The Athens Key.

2. The hub of ancient Greek civilization was the Athenian agora, which was the largest public square of the time that stretched for more than 30 acres. Athens’ agora included numerous markets, three teaching porches or ‘stoas,’ two theaters, a gymnasium, five temples, a courthouse, and a prison (Light). This mixed-use agora was more extensive than the public square of today – resembling a modern civic center – but it attracted an equally diverse crowd as today with traders, scientists, politicians, slaves, state officials, and philosophers regularly brushing shoulders and conversing in the agora. Indeed, it was this high level of interaction between different classes of people that the agora facilitated, where “the sacred and the profane met on a daily basis,” which contributed to the creation of democracy in the Athenian agora (Light and Whipps). The concept of the Greek agora was transferred to the Roman empire under the new name of ‘forum,’ but continued the same traditions and structure as the agora.

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Piazza della Signoria in Florence, Italy. A good representation of a typical Renaissance city square. This space is now most commonly used by tourists seeking an authentic piazza experience. Photo curtesy of Wikipedia.

3. The grandiose scale of the first public squares, the Greek agoras and Roman forums, was gradually reduced to its current size and function as the products and services provided in public squares grew into entirely new industries requiring separate space (Light). As the Catholic Church gained power during the Middle Ages, space for worship was removed from the public square and placed inside of a church, separating the city square and the temple forever. During the Renaissance, simple peasant trades grew into full-blown, respected professions: architects, sculptors, and painters could no longer preform their work or advertise their products effectively within city squares, so they set up shop in buildings around the square and throughout the city (Light). Industrialization further shrunk the square’s marketplace due to mass merchandising, but also limited the social contributions of the public square. As more urbanites began grueling industrialized work, time became constrained between factory shifts, which allowed for less time spent lingering and conversing in the public city square. The advent of supermarkets, home refrigeration, and eventually freeways and office towers, further stripped the public square of its auxiliary uses, now only occasionally becoming a market place on weekends for small farmers and artisans (Light).

A bustling Times Square in New York City. An example of a modern, pre-designed square. Photo curtesy of Giffy

4. The modern form of the public square is completely redefined from its original agora structure, but the social and cultural effects radiating out from these open spaces in the middle of dense cities are equally important to society as the Greek agora was to the formation of democracy. As temples, marketplaces, and courthouses expanded out into the city from the public square, it allowed squares the increased freedom to be programmed in whatever way urbanites needed it to be – a need that can change on a daily basis. Today, public squares are divided between two categories: “one that is older, organic, chaotic, and populated; and one that is recent, planned, orderly, and deserted” (Marron Et Al). The first of these two variants grew organically to accommodate the needs and culture of ordinary urbanites as they arose throughout history, and usually results in a shared space with bustling activity. The second type of public square is built according to a pre-designed master plan to embody the values of the city in an attempt to reap the social benefits from the chance encounters of public space.

The above video from The Urban Land Institute awards six cities for their outstanding public squares and parks in 2015. Video curtesy of the Urban Land Institute

5. The issue with the second variety of public square stems from its artificiality that leaves no corner unplanned, largely defeating the public square’s greatest asset: it’s customizable, programmable quality, which allows citizens themselves to shape and appropriate the space through constant daily use. In the book City Squares, writer George Packer criticizes the newer generation of public square for its tendency to “leave nothing to chance. It tells people that they are subservient to the state and, in a sense, irrelevant to it” (Marron Et Al). When urbanites occupy a square designed for the sole purpose of glorifying a city or nation’s achievements, they feel a sense of powerlessness and lack of belonging, for they sense the space is monumental and not intended for their lived urban experiences. Moscow’s Red Square and Beijing’s Tiananmen Square are both examples of this “ceremonial model of public space,” in which civic planners create large-scale squares in dedication to the nation or city’s accomplishments (Iveson 187). Most public squares however, blend these two styles of public space together, so that urbanites shape the character of the square along with civic planners that incorporate national pride and triumph. The Three Cultures Square (Plaza de las Tres Culturas) in Mexico City has a rich history and represents a hybrid modern/ancient public square.

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Three Cultures Square in Mexico City, Mexico. The three cultures are represented by the Aztec ruins, the Spanish church, and the Modernist Mexican high-rises. Photo curtesy of Esoteric Survey.

6. Three Cultures Square is located in the Cuauhtémoc borough of Mexico City and was first built in the mid-1960s. The space was originally planned to be a Corbusierian-style housing block and was included in the master plans for a modernist, one million square meter, high-rise housing project called Tlatelolco (Gallo 58). The sparse, high-rise apartments soared up, surrounding Three Cultures Square on all sides, but the Mexican developer responsible for Tlatelolco, Mario Pani, dared not touch the square due to what lay just underneath the surface: the ancient remains of an Aztec pyramid that had been razed by Spaniards in the sixteenth century. The stones from the pyramid were repurposed to build a Catholic church directly opposite the  partially destroyed pyramid. In a strange repetition of history, Pani sought to finish the job the Spanish started by clearing the remains of the pyramid and the colonial church to make way for a modernist, block-housing project of unbelievable scale. Luckily, archaeologists and Mexican authorities prohibited Pani from building on the ancient site. As a compromise, Pani incorporated the ruins into his design of the Tlatelolco housing project by making it into a public square (Gallo 59). Three Cultures Square is a unique blend of the two styles of public square – it is at once ancient and has been used as a congregating space for centuries, but has subsequently been highly planned and modernized, partially negating that history and the natural development of public squares. After Pani finished its design and construction, the square was named by Mexican officials to reflect the site’s contested history between the three cultures that each laid claim to the square at one period in history.

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An alternative view of Three Cultures Square in Mexico City, Mexico. The three cultures that also represent the three races are prominently displayed. Photo curtesy of Mexico Lore.

7. Three Cultures Square is named after the three cultures that are visible from within it: Native Aztec, Colonial Spain, and Mexican. City officials created and promoted the name of Three Cultures Square due to the post-Revolutionary ideology that “modern Mexico was a new mestizo culture born out of the encounter of two previous civilizations: the Aztecs and the Spaniards” (Gallo 59). Thus, the ancient pyramid is a reminder of Aztec architecture, the church as an example of Spanish construction, and Pani’s modernist housing project serves to show how modern Mexico builds and lives today. A plaque located within the site reveals that Three Cultures Square is not only named in honor of the three different architectural styles and cultures, but also after the three separate races: “On August 13, 1521, after being heroically defended by Cuauhtémoc, Tlatelolco fell to Hernán Cortés. It was neither victory nor defeat, but the painful birth of the mixed-blood country that is Mexico today” (Gallo 60). Three Cultures Square is then also Three Races Square, allowing Pani’s modernist high rises to represent the mixed-blood inhabitants of modern Mexico. Pani honored this idea of intermixing by centering the housing project around the square and designing the tallest building in the Tlatelolco development to be a modernist interpretation of a pyramid (Gallo 60).

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An aerial view of Pani’s Tlatelolco modernist housing project with the Three Cultures Square in the center. Photo curtesy of Pinterest.

8. The developer of Three Cultures Square and Tlatelolco, Mario Pani, the son of a diplomat, was born in 1911. He studied at École des Beaux Arts in Paris during the 1930s, which is when he discovered the philosophy and work of Le Corbusier. He cultivated a love for urban planning during his time in Paris, and upon his return to Mexico, began lobbying the Mexican government for large-scale urban transformation. In the late 1940s, he was commissioned to build the first Corbusierian housing project in Mexico City (Gallo 56). City officials had originally planned to build smaller houses or duplexes, but Pani convinced them that modern urbanism was the best route; so one thousand apartments were built within 12 large complexes. The Tlatelolco development was Pani’s third project and his largest and most monumental yet, setting out to build enough apartment blocks for one hundred thousand residents in fifteen thousand apartments (Gallo 56). Pani commented on his vision and reason for Tlatelolco: “We still need to regenerate over half of Mexico City, which is full of awful neighborhoods. The one advantage is that most of these neighborhoods are so awful that they are just waiting to be regenerated, to be torn down and rebuilt properly” (Gallo 55). Clearly a descendent of Corbusier’s style of urbanism, Pani had no regard for the history of place or patience for the accompanying urban chaos. Messy urban history would form within Pani’s master-planned Tlatelolco housing project nonetheless.

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A memorial to the massacre victims at Three Cultures Square. Photo curtesy of Wikipedia.

9. Only two years after construction was finished on the last building in the Tlatelolco housing project, a student protest in Three Cultures Square ended in the massacre of hundreds of students at the hands of Mexican police. In 1968, student movements and protests were breaking out across the world, and Mexico City was no exception. Thousands of National University students gathered in Three Cultures Square on October 2nd, just a week before the opening ceremonies of the 1968 Summer Olympics, to protest government repression and violence against students. As the rally was ending, soldiers arrived to arrest the student resistance leaders, but were greeted by gunshots from the surrounding high-rise apartments. The soldiers then opened fire on the crowd, turning the peaceful protest into a shooting that lasted two hours and took and estimated 200-400 student lives (NPR). It has since been revealed that a branch of the military, the Presidential Guard, had posted snipers in Pani’s high-rises surrounding the square with orders to shoot at the incoming soldiers to make them believe they were under fire from the students, resulting in the soldiers killing hundreds of people. The massacre at Three Cultures Square demonstrates the potential power held within the open spaces of public squares, and the consequential violence that can erupt when that power clashes. The massacre also reveals a government so desperate to present a civilized, peaceful image of Mexico City to the world during the 1968 Olympics, that they were willing to murder their own citizens to create it.

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Gammeltorv Square in Copenhagen, Denmark. Copenhagen is known around the world for their vibrant and leisurely urban spaces. The city is sometimes referred to by residents as ‘our urban living room.’ Photo curtesy of NPR.

10. The creation of Three Cultures Square and subsequent protests and violence demonstrate the contrasting functions of public squares across the world: they are the spaces where urban life most visibly thrives, but also the first space people mobilize to when that urban life is prevented from thriving. An urbanite can read about civic unrest in Syria or watch a North Korean military parade that each make use of public squares for their respective ideologies, while sitting in a beautiful and serene public square, filled with people sipping hot mugs on outdoor café tables and children playing in fountains. The public square is simultaneously the arena of political confrontation and a destination for the foreign tourist; it is the platform through which the local merchant can sell her wares to busy urbanites passing through, while also being the site of immense bloodshed and loss in the name of a movement or revolution. It is this incredible dichotomy in how public squares are utilized that makes them the most vital organ in any city, where anyone from any walk of life can come together to organize, speak out, observe, or just be. Public squares are the ultimate physical manifestations of the sense of freedom urbanites experience in cities all over the world, so it is no surprise the public square gave birth to democracy.

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Protesters participate in an anti-corruption rally in Palace Square, St. Petersburg, Russia. Photo Curtesy of NPR.



Anzilotti , Eillie. “What Public Squares Mean for Cities.” CityLab, 9 May 2016.

Gieseking, Jen Jack., et al. The People, Place, and Space Reader. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2014.

Glancey, Jonathan. “The Violent History of Public Squares.” BBC, 3 Dec. 2014.

Light, Richard. “The Agora from Athens to Atlanta: Public Space as Marketplace, Park and Center of Urban Life.” Planetizen – Urban Planning News, Jobs, and Education, 15 Apr. 2015.

Marron, Catie. City Squares: Eighteen Writers on the Spirit and Significance of Squares around the World. HarperCollins, 2016.

“Mexico’s 1968 Massacre: What Really Happened?” NPR, NPR, 1 Dec. 2008,

“Putting the Public Back into Public Space.” The People, Place, and Space Reader, by Kurt Iveson, Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2014, pp. 187–191.

“Tlatelolco: Mexico City’s Urban Dystopia.” Noir Urbanisms: Dystopic Images of the Modern City, by Rubén Gallo, Princeton University Press, 2010, pp. 53–73.

Whipps, Heather. “How the Greek Agora Changed the World.” LiveScience, Purch, 16 Mar. 2008.


2 Replies to “The Two Faces of Urban Public Squares”

  1. I think if you put a little subtitle at the beginning of each fact it may be a little easier to follow along. Although the information you have is good, I think a short title could help a reader understand a little better. Other than that, I found the information you presented to be fascinating, I had never thought of public squares as a place for social uprising. I also enjoyed the fact that you first wrote about the history of a public square in ancient Greece, to show the long history of how public squares are a place of interaction within communities throughout history, and around the globe.

  2. Overall, great job! I especially appreciate the quality of images and videos used throughout the assignment, and the captions allowed me connect the images to an actual location.

    In terms of what could be improved, the use of subtitles/headings to guide the reader through the different points would be helpful to understanding how the informations flows/ connects.

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