Squares and the Heart of a City

What spot serves as the center of Provo?

The blog Polis recently published a piece answering a similar question for Providence, Rhode Island. In that case, the post reveals, the center of the city is Kennedy Plaza:

Geographically it is a natural center, located in a river valley between two hills. College Hill (to the east) is home to Brown University, and Federal Hill (to the west) is the heart of Providence’s Italian-American community. Kennedy Plaza’s layout follows thetraditional colonial pattern, with the Providence City Hall facing the U.S. District Court. […] The plaza is also a transportation hub, first as the home of a train station from 1847 to 1980, and now as a bus depot.

The post goes into some history and detail about the plaza. It also identifies at least part of the plaza’s role in the community:

Kennedy Plaza stands out because it has become a symbol of identity and (contested) ownership for the people of Providence. It is a reminder of what Setha Low, director of the Public Space Research Group at the City University of New York and author of “On the Plaza: The Politics of Public Space and Culture” describes as the “phenomenological and symbolic experience of a space as mediated by social processes such as exchange, conflict, and control.”

While there’s a lot of great information in the piece, it’s illuminative on a basic level because Provo lacks any real public square or plaza. That was one of the very first topics I wrote about on this blog, but this piece from Polis as well as personal experience has continued to emphasize the important role these types of spaces play in cities.

Union Square, New York City.

Puerto del Sol, Madrid.

Plaça de Catalunya, Barcelona.

A tiny, shaded square, Barcelona.

Provo doesn’t really have anything like these spaces, even on a more size-appropriate scale. (Provo is smaller than New York, Madrid, and Barcelona, after all.)

Provo does have a few places that almost function as public squares. Pioneer Park, for example, hosts the farmer’s market and the space near the DMV hosts the Freedom and Latino festivals. The area in front of the Utah Valley Convention Center also resembles a square.

The square in front of the Utah Valley Convention Center.

But ask anyone in Provo where the center of the city lies and, unlike in Providence, you’re likely to get a variety of answers. My own opinion is that the center of the city is the intersection of University Ave and Center Street, which isn’t a square at all, but rather a busy street corner. Other people may disagree, but either way it seems clear that Provo lacks the kind of physical and conceptual epicenter that is evidently so important to other cities.

And that doesn’t just mean the absence of a public area to congregate or sit in, though those are important things to do in a city. It also means the absence of a “symbolic” space that can serve as a kind of metonym for the metropolitan experience. It means people have a harder time taking ownership over their city because there isn’t a physical space that serves as a representation of their city.

Or, put another way, a city without a single square doesn’t have an arbitrarily or geographically determined center; it lacks a center entirely.

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3 Comments

Filed under Downtown, Provo

3 responses to “Squares and the Heart of a City

  1. Paul

    The possible center locations you listed in Provo (add to them the proposed grounds around the Tabernacle-Temple and one or more of NuSkin’s planned open spaces) all have great potential for serving the kinds of purposes you cite in other cities. Indeed, for a city its size, Provo is on the verge of overflowing with various kinds of public or quasi-public gathering spaces which could be regarded and used as symbolic centers of the City. We may even find that, unlike some other cities, multiple Downtown Provo open spaces at some point will work together in concert as sort of an interlinked system of centers that people think of when Downtown Provo comes to mind. I think the key to the success of one or more of these as centers will lie in 1) their design, including how they are bounded by buildings and other delineating features, and 2) their management. We tend to focus on just reserving the space, but need to give more attention to how to add value to the space through its design and management. Right now, for example, the Convention Center plaza gets very little use or even attention. How the County develops the remaining land on the west side of this plaza will be huge in creating interest and activity on the plaza. Likewise, the plaza management, particularly the arrangement of the furniture and the absence of any programming, so far seems pretty ineffectual, as far as generating activity is concerned. (One suspects that Convention Center operators may prefer it that way? It’s easier to maintain if no one is using it.)

    • I look forward to the day when we have more and better designed spaces. It’s also a really interesting point about spaces that may be intentionally designed to create disuse.

  2. Pingback: Best August Posts | (pro(vo)cation)

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