In the village of Bellapais on the island of Cyprus, there is an old mulberry tree called the Tree of Idleness that stands in the town square. It is said that those who sit in the shade of the tree are unable to return to work. Not surprisingly, it’s a favorite pastime of villagers to sit in the shade of the tree chatting with friends and neighbors and playing cards.
Leisurely afternoons—and Trees of Idleness—are hard to come by in many parts of the world. So, too, are the town squares that host them, says Mark Childs ‘81, author of Squares: A Public Place Design Guide for Urbanists. In the book, Childs argues that public places are just as essential to the well-being of a community as the occasional afternoon off is to the happiness of an individual.
Childs, an assistant professor of architecture at the University of New Mexico, offers insight into the design of thriving civic centers through case studies and analyses of dozens of public places, mostly in North America—beachfronts and city plazas and farmers’ markets. But the book is more than a guide for urban designers. It is a reminder to anyone who has ever attended a street parade or a festival, protested outside city hall, accomplished a day’s worth of errands in one trip, or simply bumped into an old friend or neighbor at the post office that a thriving civic life depends on a thriving civic center. And as shopping malls and automobiles continue to drive retail into a suburban no-man’s-land, our civic centers are in dire need of attention. “I’m hoping this book will help influence people to think about making public spaces in a richer, more complex way,” Childs says.
Childs received his undergraduate degree in architecture from MIT, where, he recalls, his teachers placed a strong emphasis on the social and political aspects of design. “The social and political awareness of what the work means or could mean was part and parcel of the work,” he says. “It wasn’t just ‘How do you build a building?’” As director of the Design and Planning Assistance Center at the University of New Mexico, he has held on to that way of thinking. In collaboration with other professors, architects, and urbanists, he has worked with communities in New Mexico to restore life to fading town squares and central plazas. “There’s a little town called Doña Ana that has the oldest Spanish-era plaza in southern New Mexico—and currently it’s a parking lot,” he says. “So we did a design to bring it back to being a plaza.” The new design features a short wall of sitting height, a ring of trees, a small fountain, and an arcaded courtyard. “We designed the changes so that automobiles could still use the area on occasion,” says Childs, but the cars will clearly be “guests” in an otherwise pedestrian zone.
Childs is spending this semester in Cyprus, where he will continue studying social and cultural dimensions of public places. And if he’s lucky, he’ll find a few leisurely afternoons to spend in the shade of the Tree of Idleness.
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