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Parramatta Light Rail Architectus

Q & Architecture: designing town squares and laneways

Senior Associate, Esther Mavrokokki discusses designing town squares, laneways and pedestrian streets and the important role they play in communities. 

You have worked on town square projects in both Melbourne and Adelaide. What components make town squares vibrant gathering spaces?

There are so many components. None of which happen by accident. Location is critical. Town squares should be centrally located, easily accessible and near to different types of public transport. In European cities, where local town squares are central to communities, squares are nexus points within networks of busy streets; it’s just as easy to move across the square towards your destination as it is to stop and linger, maybe have a cup of coffee and appreciate the moment. There should be areas – public steps or benches with access to shade or cover – to sit with company or without. There should be activities happening all the time – children playing, people interacting, public performances, and lots of opportunities for people-watching.

The square should also be the right size and scale for the urban environment it exists within. Too small and there are limits to the kinds of events that can take place. Too large and the square loses its sense of intimacy and people feel less comfortable lingering there.

Those are the basic elements of a successful square that designers can build upon to create that all important sense of identity, which I think defines the success of any public space. Old town squares – often containing statues and fountains and surrounded by historic facades – already have a strong civic identity and hold a sense of public nostalgia. Creating an equally appealing atmosphere in a new, contemporary square is more challenging. As a designer you are aiming to create spaces that are memorable, that have resonance for the people who visit. If a space is surrounded by interesting buildings, then the square should respond to and highlight these facades. Landscaping, integrating public art, creating interesting spaces for hospitality and performance, and creating a space that people feel they have ownership over all contribute to the success of a square too.

On a practical note, often square projects involve many different stakeholders with different and sometimes competing interests. Designers work to balance and satisfy the interests of governments and local councils as well as various commercial tenants – both permanent and transient tenants who use the square for short term or pop-up events or festivals.

Historically, town squares were at the centres of communities. How can we give modern town squares a strong purpose and public engagement?

There was time not so long ago when most people went to church and would gather and socialise afterwards in the Church square. It was also the case that village squares were marketplaces where people would do their shopping, socialise and catch up on the local gossip. These town squares had a clearly established and unchanging purpose in people’s everyday lives and were critical places for community connection.

We saw how important town squares can be to connecting people when, early in the COVID-19 pandemic, the news was filled with footage of Europeans congregating on the balconies surrounding their local squares. For those people that connection to community was vital to their mental health during those long weeks of lockdown.

In Australia, town squares play a multifaceted, less defined role, and it can be a challenge to tie the full scope of possibilities together into a cohesive place with a strong civic identity. Again, this is why the location of the square is so critical. A well-located square lies at the junction between the various spheres of community life.

Melbourne’s Federation Square is a wonderful example of this. It is across the road from Flinders Street Station on the banks of the Yarra River. It connects Melbourne’s central business district with its cultural institutions, such as the Ian Potter Centre, the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, with the State Theatre and National Gallery of Victoria just across the river. Trams run along Flinders Street and St Kilda Road day and night. There are cocktail bars and cafes, steps for people to sit, and some of Australia’s most interesting contemporary architecture. And, because of all these components, it attracts writers’ festivals, design markets, major cultural events. The square has become a landmark, a meeting place, the city’s beating heart with something for everyone.

Perhaps, given the way the world has changed this year, town squares will become even more central to our cities in the future, providing outdoors spaces where people can safely gather at a distance.

You lived in Melbourne – a city known not just for Federation Square but for its vibrant network of laneways – for 30 years before returning to your hometown of Adelaide last year. How have Adelaide public gathering spaces changed in that time and how do these spaces compare with Melbourne’s?  

Unlike Sydney and Melbourne where large public spaces were viewed as a potential risk for convict riots and revolts, Colonel Light planned the free-settler city of Adelaide with a network of five town squares surrounded by parklands. But as city buildings grew bigger, many of its smaller historic laneways were overrun by development. For a long time, Adelaide felt a bit stagnant and uninspiring in its lack of vibrant, connective public spaces in the CBD. In the last ten years that has begun to change with the emergence of characterful laneways to rival Melbourne’s as well as makeovers of town squares such as Victoria Square and, outside of the city, Henley Beach Square.

I’m thinking of intimate, historic streets such as Leigh Street – a laneway connecting Hindley and Currie Streets – which was attractive but little more than a thoroughfare until a small bar along the street petitioned to amend local licensing laws to better support small venues. The creation of the Small Venue License revolutionised Adelaide’s laneway culture and Leigh Street is now one of the liveliest hospitality destinations in the city.

Once you have one successful laneway, there begins a ripple effect across the city; others see the potential for success and similar destinations begin cropping up. That’s what’s been happening in Adelaide in the last decade.

Then there’s Victoria Square, which for so long was just an oversized park that lacked functionality or purpose in the middle of the city. I think the planning that went into the makeover of that space was clever, especially given the enlarged size of the space. Now it works as a venue for larger cultural events such as the international pro-cycling event, Tour Down Under in January.

Adelaide’s strong festival culture – particularly during February and March when the Fringe Festival and the Adelaide Festival bring the city to life – has also played a role in the emergence of exciting public spaces. In recent years, during this time, Rundle Street has been closed to traffic and the cafes and restaurants spill out onto the street; the atmosphere calls to mind some of the great pedestrian streets of Europe like Barcelona’s Las Ramblas or Rue Mouffetard in Paris. We can expect several upcoming projects in Adelaide will add similar value to the urban realm.