In Rockville's Public Square, Doing as the Romans

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, April 15, 2006

Near the center of Rome, there's a much-visited public space, the Piazza Campo dei Fiori -- in English, the Square of the Field of Flowers.

Near the historic heart of Rockville, there will soon be a public space, too. The Town Square is taking shape as construction of a new, high-density town center progresses.

I walked frequently through the Campo when I was in Rome last month. That helped me realize that the centuries-old square and Rockville's soon-to-be-completed Town Square, in whose design I participated, have much in common.

Both spaces are essentially rectangular and surrounded by multistory, mixed-use buildings that frame the spaces and make them feel roomlike. The spaces are similar in dimension, each measuring about 40 yards in width and more than 100 yards in length.

In both spaces, vehicular through-traffic is limited, making pedestrian movement dominant. Restaurants, cafes and shops occupy the ground-level, perimeter real estate of the Campo. The perimeter real estate of Rockville's square, when completed, will also be filled with restaurants, cafes and stores. A new county library and cultural arts building also will face the plaza.

And there is one other important similarity: The Roman space now hosts, and the Rockville space soon will host, specific activities that ensure functional vitality. These are both civic squares with programs, places where daily animation depends not only on what surrounds them, but also on what occurs within them.

The Campo's program has evolved over centuries. The Town Square's program, being developed by the city and other interested parties, will start evolving next year, when the town center opens.

As the 16th century center of Rome, the Campo neighborhood was replete with inns, modest urban dwellings, grand palaces and churches. The Campo itself was the site of both festivals and executions.

Today, the square is the site of a bustling, daytime, Monday-through-Saturday open-air market. Vendors arrive before dawn to set up their stands, filling the entire piazza. They sell fresh fish, meat and poultry, seasonal fruits and vegetables, cheeses, spices, pasta and, of course, flowers. With its sights, smells and sounds, the Campo market is an unforgettable experience that draws both local residents and tourists.

Yet by early afternoon, the market winds down, as vendors depart and leave behind an empty plaza littered with debris. And every afternoon, like clockwork, city cleaning crews arrive and, within an hour or two, remove all the debris. Simultaneously, cafes surrounding the Campo begin spilling farther out into the piazza with their tables and chairs.

Thus, as the afternoon progresses, the Campo is transformed from a market destination to a social destination. And this daily shift is clearly enabled by a long-standing tradition of public-private collaboration.

Rockville's Town Square has the potential to become an animated destination, not unlike the Campo dei Fiori. Programmed public activities in the square, along with multiple civic, cultural and commercial functions abutting it, will help realize that potential. Because the Town Square will be Rockville's symbolic center, fulfilling that potential is essential.

Rockville Town Center's design guidelines explicitly talk about the Town Square as "the focal point of the development." The plaza is to "provide a community gathering place for special events and arts-related activities such as Hometown Holidays, Spirit of Rockville and others." It is to be a place that "residents will make a part of their daily lives as they eat, relax and play."

To that purpose, the square will be mostly open but will include a fountain, a small pavilion, a panel of grass and, lining its long edges, zones for café seating delineated by patterned paving and rows of shade trees. In its design details, it will differ considerably from the Campo, which is punctuated only by a statue at its center and a news kiosk near its northern end.

Although Rockville Town Square is a work in progress, its physical form, geometric proportions and visual qualities are already evident. One can sense even now that it will be a special urban space, more European than American in character, a space unlike any other in metropolitan Washington.

It will demonstrate why public open spaces conceived in the abstract, with design focused only on formal attributes, often yield dead spaces. To succeed, such spaces also must be enriched and enlivened by activity.

Who knows? Someday, perhaps Rockville's Town Square will be not only a great place to "eat, relax and play," but also the site of a vibrant, open-air market.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.

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