Points on the Square (Part I)

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(First in a series of three)

One of the most remarkable features of every great urban environment is its public squares. Whether it is Washington’s Dupont Circle or New York’s Bryant Park, these public spaces create a focal point and identify neighborhoods. Though the RFP (Part B) the University issued to developers only asks for “high quality public spaces,” the University’s Master Plan for East Campus envisions a public square and this square will likely be one of the most prominent and popular features of the neighborhood.

However, to ensure the square’s success, it must be both safe and inviting. In the first installment of this three-part series, we will introduce three points to consider in building a successful square:

  • Do not line the square with perimeter fences or hedges. Pedestrians and passersby must be able to look inside the square at all times. Not only does this openness eliminate cover for criminals, but invites people in, especially if they can observe all the activity going on in the park before deciding to go in. Furthermore, research has shown people are less likely to enter a public plaza if they must step up or down into it, so the park must be on the same level as the street, neither elevated nor depressed.
  • Pave with brick and grass. On warm days, students relax on McKeldin Mall either in the bright sunshine or in the shade to read a book. It’s clear that students like grassy open spaces. However, a good amount of this recreation on the Mall actually occurs under the shade of trees by the library end of the Mall. Ironically, students congregate to relax near the busiest part of the Mall. The square should provide grass and trees along the perimeter of the park, reserving the center for a hardscaped plaza. Furthermore, the pathways of such an important park should be paved with brick, which is far better than concrete. University symbols should be etched or somehow printed into the pavement; an occasional ‘M’ or a Testudo silhouette would do just fine.
  • Construct a fountain in the center. Some of the most popular public spaces employ water features. Be it the fountain at Bethesda and Woodmont Avenues in Bethesda (below– it becomes a Christmas display in the autumn), the statuary fountain in the center of Dupont Circle (above), or the water jets embedded along Ellsworth Drive in Silver Spring, it is clear that people like water features and that the younger enjoy them even more. The aesthetic details of the fountain are not so important now, but it would be nice to include some of the icons of the University into fountain. Perhaps integrating Testudo or even Kermit the Frog would help. Better yet, the fountain could be Senior class gift or a project of the art department.

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What are some of your favorite parks, squares, and fountains? We’d like to hear.

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