Connecting Global Cities: City Squares

May 22, 2013 9:54:17 AM / by Stephanie Sadler

“Connecting Global Cities” is a monthly column written by Colin Speakman, Director of China Programs for CAPA International Education.


When staying in a global city, where does one “center” one’s life? Is there an area, other than where staying, where one returns to regularly to chill out, hangout, and perhaps get some space? One likely possibility is a famous city square, often steeped in history. They do differ in content and role.

Times Square
Photo: Times Square, NYC, USA by Simona Barbu

For many visitors to New York, Times Square will be a good example. It is full of neon like a beacon from afar and plenty of cafes, eateries and entertainment. Also, Times Square is globally famous for the photographs of Americans welcoming in the New Year. It is a lot different from Trafalgar Square in London (below) – also a famous place to celebrate New Year but without neon signs or cafes on the square.

Some city squares form the center of life. When spending time in Spain’s Salamanca, one is told that if one sits long enough in the Plaza Major all the residents of the city will pass by. Perhaps that is less likely in Spain’s capital city of Madrid, but it too has a magnificent Plaza Major steeped in history and architectural splendor. These Spanish squares offer lots of alfresco dinning and the opportunity to truly chill out to reflect on life and watch some residents walk by. The Plaza Majors vied for best in Spain and I have my own view on that.

Plaza Major Madrid 75330
Photo: Plaza Major, Madrid, Spain by Al Greening

There’s a different feel in Cuba’s Havana with its huge Plaza de la Revolucion (Revolution Square) with the famous image of the revolutionary leader, Che Guevara, a military fighter by example, on the side of one of the buildings, and the monument to Jose Marti (dating from 1996) a non-soldier revolutionary through advocacy and poetry as an interesting contrast. When visiting Havana on National Day, the TV pictures in my hotel showed a big crowd in the square. I rushed down with local friends, to find somewhat fewer people there. My friends explained that the authorities sometimes start up previous year footage on TV till the crowds build up!

Photo: Revolution Square, Havana, Cuba by Flyer E901

Of course Beijing and Havana maintain good relations and there’s definitely a similar feel of large concrete space and some solemnity in visiting the Chinese capital’s Tiananmen Square (see below). In the world news for the wrong reasons 14 years ago on May 35th (a reference to the sensitivity of printing the true date) but much has moved on since then and we will make no further reference.

Photo: CAPA Beijing students in front of the Monument to war heroes in Tiananmen Square by Colin Speakman

Many city squares are at the confluence of major road links. Some squares are very concrete and others contain a good blend of greenery but not so much as to re-define them as a park – that is a topic for another Connecting Global Cities column. Perhaps one of the greenest squares in CAPA International Education’s global cities is People’s Square in Shanghai.

Photo: CAPA group in Peoples' Square in Shanghai by Colin Speakman

With these thoughts in mind, let’s look at what city squares have to offer in CAPA International Education's eight global cities.


Tiananmen Square

Photo: CAPA students in Tiananmen Square from Colin Speakman

There has been a square in some form outside of Tiananmen (a famous city gate meaning Heavenly Peace) in Beijing since 1651. However, the modern Tiananmen Square was rebuilt under orders of Chairman Mao after the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949 and work was finally completed in 1959. The first “building” on the modern square itself was the monument to the fallen heroes of China in several wars. The square also houses Mao’s Mausoleum (built in 1977 after his death in 1976) and some modern huge TV screens first erected for the 2009 60th anniversary of the founding of the PRC.

There are many buildings bordering the square but they are separated by busy roads. Two of the most impressive ones are the Great Hall of the People and the National Museum of China. At the top is the Tiananmen (gate) and through that the entrance to the Forbidden City. At the bottom is the Qianmen (gate) and behind that lies Qianmen Commercial Street. Tiananmen Square is very much a place to walk through but it's not designed as a place to sit and relax. Be prepared for security checks on bags and a lot of visible and less visible policing.


Plaza San Martin

Plaza San Martin a la Noche
Photo: Plaza San Martin at night by Tosin Arasi

Plaza San Martín in Buenos Aires is definitely one of the greener plazas. Carlos Thays designed the space on a gently sloping bluff. It is a place to chill out with plenty of seats, though they fill quickly on warm afternoons with locals eating snacks and couples chatting. There’s an imposing bronze and marble monument to honor the South American liberator San Martín. It is a great escape at the end of the very busy downtown Florida Street – one minute hustle and bustle, the next minute open space in the heart of the city.

Although the square is very popular with locals, if you're there are as tourist, try not to look too much like one. Unfortunately, there are some undesirables who target the area looking for pick-pocketing and other opportunities to annoy visitors. As in any global city's most popular areas being circumspect is always advisable. It is worth visiting for some great views and monuments like the Malvinas War Memorial. As a Brit, I won’t spend too much time on that Falklands v Malvinas issue.


Mountjoy Square

Mountjoy Square October 2011
Photo: Mountjoy Square, Dublin by Keith Carney

Mountjoy is Dublin's only true Georgian square (because each of its sides measures precisely 140 meters in length), although there are five squares termed Georgian squares in the Irish Capital. It can be found on the north side of the city, quite close to the River Liffey. The square dates from the late 18th century and takes its name from the second Luke Gardiner, (aka Viscount Mountjoy). It is surrounded on all sides by individual terraced, red-brick Georgian houses. Construction took from the 1790s to 1818.

The square is attractive to visit because of its history – especially literary. The writer James Joyce lived around the square during his early years, playwright Séan O'Casey wrote and set some of his most famous plays on the square and W.B. Yeats stayed there with his friend John O'Leary. The majority of the Oscar-winning film Once was made in the square. Historic meetings have taken place in Mountjoy Square, including planning for the famous Easter Rising (a 6 day Irish Rebellion against British rule in Easter 1916) and some of the earliest Dáil (lower house of Irish Parliament) meetings.


Piazza Della Repubblica

FLORENCE - FIRENZE - Piazza della Repubblica
Photo: Piazza Della Repubblica by Michel Guilly

This city square, Piazza Della Repubblica, is on the former site firstly of the Florence's forum and then of the city's old ghetto, which was removed during the city improvement works (Risanamento). During this brief period, Florence was the capital of a reunited Italy from 1865-1871. The square boasts historic villas and cafes and many locals and visitors will pass through, or by, it in walking from the Piazza del Duomo to the Ponte Vecchio.

The Piazza della Repubblica became a familiar square to me as for several years I oversaw study abroad programs based in a villa overlooking the square and enjoyed balcony views during visits. The Giubbe Rosse cafe on the square is a historic venue that I enjoyed many a morning cappuccino in. There are many good cafe and eating options around the square and sometimes music events and other entertainment in the evening.


Taksim Square

Taksim Square

Taksim Square is considered to be at the heart of Istanbul on the European side, with the central station of the metro network right there. It attracts tourists and local leisure seekers as it is famed for its shops, restaurants and hotels. It is yet another example of a welcome-in-the-New-Year venue.

Its claim for top choice is backed by also having the Monument of the Republic which was crafted by the famous Italian sculptor Pietro Canonica and unveiled in 1928. At that time, the monument commemorated the 5th anniversary of the founding of the Republic of Turkey. Add the Atatürk Cultural Center, also with an opera house, right there and one has a taste of history and modern fun in one place.


Trafalgar Square

Trafalgar Square
Photo: Trafalgar Square by john.king

The capital of the United Kingdom boasts many squares - notably Leicester Square for theaters, cinemas and night clubs (a neon place), Sloane Square for high end shopping and Parliament Square in front of Big Ben and Westminister Abbey. After driving through or around them for many years, my vote goes to Trafalgar Square linking the Strand, Charing Cross Road, Whitehall and the Mall, as London's largest square as well as a common place for Londoners to see in the New Year.

The square is named to commemorate the famous battle of Trafalgar (where Britain defeated combined French and Spanish naval fleets in 1805), with (Lord) Nelson's column prominent. Add the fountains and the imposing lions and that it is overlooked by the National Gallery, Canada House and South Africa House, with the church of St.Martin's-in-the-field looking on from the North East corner, and one has a majestic square which gives visitors a good sense of history.


People's Square

Photo: Ariel view of People's Square in Shanghai by Colin Speakman

Another Square at the confluence of important roads and transport links is People's Square in Shanghai. The Square lies at the intersection of West Nanjing Road (the most important commercial road in China) and Nanjing Pedestrian Street. People's Square metro station connects lines 1, 2 and 8 and needs no fewer the 20 exits. It is so large it provides an underground mini shopping city, taking 15 minutes to walk between the furthest apart exits under the square.

Above ground, the Square has a fairground, large pond, restaurants and cafes and is home to the Shanghai Museum, the Shanghai Planning Exhibition Hall, the Shanghai Art Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Shanghai Grand Theater among others. It is overlooked by many modern hotels and skyscrapers, the famous Park Hotel (the tallest building in China in 1935), the Shanghai wax-works in the New World Center and several huge shopping malls. It's a happening place and definitely Shanghai's top square.


Taylor Square

Photo: Taylor Square, Sydney by lindsaybridge

A number of so-called 'squares' in Sydney are really dominated by a tall impressive building with little else in the locale or space for a proper square. However, Taylor Square stands out as a multi-featured venue. Again, like many squares it is located beside a major road intersection, where Oxford Street meets Flinders Street and Bourke Street. The square sits above the tunnel section of the Eastern Distributor part of Metroad 1.

Named after Sir Allen Taylor (1864-1940), a timber merchant, ship builder and Lord Mayor of Sydney who achieved the widening of the famous Oxford Street, it is popularly known as "Gilligan's Island" because of three large palm trees that once occupied (but no longer) the square. It is a center of the city's nightlife, including the gay community, with many bars, nightclubs, restaurants, cafes and shops. A notable historic landmark is Darlinghurst Courthouse, a formidable sandstone building dating from 1844.

Do you have a favourite square from your travels abroad or in your home city? If so, tell us about it in the comments!

Topics: Global Cities