Public plazas have long been the most important spaces for any community. They come in many forms, shapes, and sizes, but all serve the same function: a place for community members to gather. We gather to buy and sell, to meet up with friends, to celebrate, to worship, and to exchange ideas. The best plazas are versatile, and can accommodate many uses, and many users. Plazas and squares all over the world have become destinations for tourists to visit, often because of important events or movements that began there.
Recent events in Egypt and Africa have brought to mind the importance of the public plaza in political change. From the time of the Greeks and the Romans, the central agora or forum served multiple duties, both as marketplace and political incubator. The ideas surrounding modern democracy and individual liberties were developed in these open-air spaces, and as the previous two weeks have shown, these ideologies continue to unfold in the public plazas of the world.
More than anything, a plaza or square represents POWER. The power of the state. The power of a church. The power of a people. The power of markets. Powerful players in society have the ability to create public space, with the intention of using that space for their benefit, and to assert their power. The use of squares, however, can be co-opted, as has happened in many cities across the planet. While the Place de la Concorde may have once represented the power of the French Monarchy, it eventually became the central focus of the French Revolution, and hosted the mass execution of the French nobility. Tiananmen Square, which stood for centuries as the symbol of the power of the ancient Chinese empire, facing the massive Forbidden City, has now become synonymous with public, defiant, grass roots political uprising.