As a Midwesterner born in Indiana and currently residing in Michigan, I have been long accustomed to the traditional courthouse (or town) squares found in communities across the region. In most cases the square is dominated by an historic county courthouse with a variety of statues and monuments adorning the grounds. While such a design can be impressive, it often leaves little public space for gatherings, activities, and events. Furthermore, the streets surrounding the square are almost always maximized for motor vehicle purpose.
Consider the historic plazas of New Mexico as an alternative. Their design came courtesy of the Spain and later Mexico and lovingly adorn a number of communities in the Southwest, particularly in New Mexico.
Unlike the courthouse square, the central portion of the plaza is an open space that is designed with the public in mind often including gazebos, gardens, shade trees, a farmers market, amphitheaters, and the like. These historic plazas are also much more pedestrian-friendly and human-scaled than the typical courthouse square.
In some cases, a cathedral or basilica dominates one side of the outer periphery of the plaza, while the balance of the plaza is surrounded with a variety of shops, services, and sometimes a government building. In the past, these outer buildings also served as a protective defensive perimeter from potential attacks.
To this retired planner, the Spanish town plaza design found primarily in the Southwest easily surpasses the courthouse square as an excellent placemaking attribute for a community. The village greens of New England are the probably closest equivalent to plazas found east of the Mississippi River.
Communities where you can visit town plazas in New Mexico include (all aerial photos courtesy of maps.google.com):
- Albuquerque (Old Town), NM
- Carrizozo, NM
- Costilla, NM – historic, though now bisected by NM-196
- La Luz, NM – added to this post on 7/12/21
- Las Vegas, NM – a lovely oval design
- Mesilla, NM
- Santa Fe, NM – Palace of the Governors occupies the northern periphery of the plaza
- Socorro, NM – lovely design that incorporates boulevards leading to it from the north and south
- Taos, NM
Historic plazas may also be found in San Juan Bautista, Santa Cruz, and Sonoma, California; St. Augustine, Florida; as well as in El Paso; Laredo; San Antonio; and San Elazario, Texas. (added Santa Cruz, San Juan Bautista, Sonoma and Laredo to this post on 7/12/21)
Given their positive placemaking and community-building attributes, this retired planner is rather surprised that plazas have not been more often incorporated into master plans or redevelopment efforts across the Southwest, including in those places that were not necessarily founded under Spain or Mexico. A town plaza such as those depicted above in the photographs also seems like a logical addition to rapidly growing and/or newly planned cities/towns that would help establish a “there” there. Frankly, I cannot think of a better way to coalesce the citizenry and forge an identity.