Defining a ‘piazza’, and why it’s not a ‘plaza

Why is it even important?

The words plaza, place and piazza have the same Greek origin, with plaza being the Spanish adaption, place in French, and piazza the Italian one. However, while these spaces retain their community-centric car-free heritage in each respective country, the U.S. chose the term ‘plaza’ to define its own urban public squares, which have since become auto-oriented models that have almost nothing to do with its Spanish origin. For instance, the New Urbanism Lexicon, the de facto dictionary for progressive urban planning, defines a plaza as:

A public space at the intersection of important streets set aside for civic purposes and commercial activities. A plaza is circumscribed by frontages; its landscape consists of durable pavement for parking and trees requiring little maintenance. All parking lots on frontages should be designed as plazas with the paving not marked or detailed as parking lots.

That’s three references to parking in one definition. It’s no wonder the term shopping plaza doesn’t elicit elegant examples of memorable placemaking.

The definition of a piazza however, still retains its definition as an open public square, especially in Italian towns, surrounded by buildings, and usually the center of public life. In other words, it’s still defined by its historic heritage as a pedestrian-only destination, designed to be the heart of a neighborhood or town, filled with cafes, restaurants and bars and host to a series of local events and public markets. See a more detailed description in “What emerging generations really want: A piazza… 2011“.

There is only one piazza in the U.S., and it just opened in 2009: The Piazza in Philadelphia. It has quickly become the beloved center of the neighborhood. A second is being crowdsourced in Bristol, Connecticut.

So, how does one technically distinguish a piazza from a plaza? For that we turn to Moule & Polyzoides, where you’d be hard pressed to find an urban design firm in the U.S. that is more knowledgeable about piazzas and plazas. It shouldn’t be a surprise that co-founder Stefanos Polyzoides is from Greece, the birthplace of the agora and precursor to forum, then the piazza. Based on their criteria, here’s how to tell a piazza (which they refer to as a Mediterranean plaza) from an Americanized plaza:

1. Strong Enclosure – Piazzas feel like being in human-scaled outdoor rooms; very large courtyards, not like the aforementioned parking, cars and sometimes skyscrapers that are associated with plazas.
2. Wall Continuity – Piazzas are almost always surrounded on all sides by buildings with pedestrian-sized passageways, as opposed to the minimum two-lane traffic-filled streets that break up the sense of place in plazas.
3. Continuous Accessible Ground Floor – Piazzas are true to their Greek origin, acting as open stages by nature, deemphasizing landscaping features other than its floor. Plazas are often completely filled by fountains, monuments and other over-designed landscaping elements (see Georgetown Waterfront in Washington DC where the entire plaza is a fountain).
4. Open to Multiple Use/Non-Specific Design – The buildings on piazzas are designed to be timeless, so that as the economy and culture changes, so do the uses in the building… seamlessly. For some reason, many plazas seem to insist on featuring large buildings that are easily dated.
5. Temporariness vs. Permanence – As with a stage, the blank slate that is a piazza leaves the imagination to whoever is planning an event in it that day, unlike many plazas that are designed for specific experiences, from a fountain show to a landscaped viewing garden to picnic areas… which are fine for a park.
6. Day and Night – A piazza is in full use day and night by the locals – it can be a playground in the morning, welcome a concert in the afternoon, be a dining scene in the evening, and host a movie later that night. Plazas commonly have dead zones during certain times of the day if it’s not positioned as a major tourist attraction.
7. Design of the Threshold between Public and Private Spaces This is a big one. Piazzas emphasize the private lingering spaces within it, from an outdoor dining area to a local coffeehouse or pub on the corner, it’s a third place filled with third places. Plazas tend to feature more corporate or large public venues.
8. Cars Matter at Times – Piazzas can accommodate vehicles when necessary, such as when needed for special events and loading/unloading, versus plazas where accommodating cars is necessary, period. There are no roads bordering any side of a piazza as you’ll find with just about all plazas. You could say that the historic piazzas that have been transformed into parking lots are now plazas rather than piazzas.
9. People-Watching as Sport – As a stage, there is always a spontaneous human activity show going on. In other words, life is never dull in a piazza. While people may enjoy people watching in a plaza, it’s definitely a sport in a piazza.
10. The Heart of the Neighborhood – This is what makes a piazza a piazza. Just ask anyone who lives near one, they couldn’t imagine not having one.

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  • Greg

    Good post. Pedestrianized streets are closer to the piazza ideal than most plazas. Market Square in Knoxville (TN) and the Downtown Mall in Charlottesville (VA) both provide most of the benefits of piazzas, even though they have streets at the ends.

  • Thanks Greg, I agree the pedestrian-only street are closer to piazzas than U.S. plazas, and thanks to your reference, I just added Knoxville’s Market Square to the Car free “natural cultural districts” in the U.S. list.

  • Greg

    You might be interested in a very good book about Knoxville’s Market Square. “Market Square, a history of the most democratic place on Earth.” I bought it from Amazon. A good history of a pretty cool place.

  • Andrew Hillhouse

    Neil, you are doing a great job promoting the possibilities of public space. You have however done a disservice to the Plaza. Having walked across northern Spain through about 90 or so small to large towns and cities, a plaza is and does everything you ascribe to a piazza. You were correct in the first sentence. The real meaning of the word “plaza” should not be determined by what is called a “plaza” in America (or Australia), even if it is by a New Urbanist guru.

  • Thanks Andrew, I completely agree that the design and use of a plaza in the U.S. has nothing to do with the plazas in Spain, and I made that much clearer in the post based on your comments. The point is exactly as you say, that the U.S. version of the plaza has done a disservice to the plaza in Spain, from a community building and pedestrian experience point of view. However, rather than try and redefine what a plaza is in the U.S., it’s much easier to use a term that’s not already been co-opted by the U.S., (i.e. piazza) and maintain the authentic principles of its design and use. One could also come up with a new term altogether, but I’m just going with what the folks in Philadelphia are using, a piazza.

  • Andrew Hillhouse

    Fair point.
    Its amazing what people do when they are given good public urban space as in your example above of the Piazza at Schmitds.

  • The term “plaza” is derived from Spanish word referring to an open field. Plazas are open places or city squares that are surrounded by buildings, stores, shops and offices. Piazza is an Italian word meaning “plaza”.