Forrest Gump’s park bench scene was filmed in Chippewa Square, Savannah, Georgia. Here Forrest, played by Tom Hanks, famously claimed that “life is like a box of chocolates” before telling the world his life story.
Interestingly, Savannah is the first planned city in America, and is known for its network of open squares inspired by a pattern of streets and lanes credited to General James Oglethorpe in 1733. Architect John Massengale called the Oglethorpe plan “the most intelligent grid in America, [and] perhaps the world.”
The style of the grid layout represented a trend away from cramped conditions that sparked the Great Fire of London. Oglethorpe designed a square at the centre of each ward with all 61 metres long east to west and various north to south lengths. Traffic intersections allowed for a one-way flow of traffic around the square.
As a large-scale National Historic Landmark District, Savannah is cherished for its aesthetic beauty. With spectacular oak canopies, wide brick sidewalks, public art and plentiful bench spaces it hosts 13 million tourists a year. The squares bring a sense of calm and contentment to both young and old, locals and tourists alike. They have been attributed to stabilising once-failing neighbourhoods and revitalising downtown.
The European square, an ingrained town planning feature after the 11th century, fostered the development of Europe’s communities, cultures and democracies. However, the square had been around for more than two millennia in various forms across the continent.
The European square gives a unique feeling of belonging in a neighbourhood, by the visual enclosure of continuous building walls where the sky is the ceiling. Increasingly imposing buildings dramatise the effect. Each square is unique with various shapes and sizes from fan-shaped in Siena to square-doughnut-shaped in Krakow.
Jan Gehl notes that if a public square is too large, people often remain on the edge and miss opportunities to interact with one another. How a square is broken down into sub-areas can also determine the degree of comfort and safety. Gehl shows the optimum size of a square allows people to recognise each other from one side to the other.
Project for Public Spaces wisely refers to squares as “an extension of the community” and as “the ‘front porches’ of our public institutions.” A common feature of both European and Savannah’s squares is the ease of access for many residents allowing for short in-and-out trips that allow more time for social experiences.
While most European squares do not have car access, the Savannah squares run along streets, which can promote access and importantly passive surveillance. However, streets should be designed to minimise their impact on squares including traffic noise and speed, safety, aesthetics and integration with surrounding community amenities.
It is also well documented that revitalisation projects in public space leads to increased land values, allowing for land value tax capture for governments.
Unfortunately, modern cities lack the foresight to invest in town squares. This needs to change as town squares humanise and invigorate our cities. Their historical presence in our cities arguably makes us physiologically attuned to them.
It is easy to see that squares can benefit the physical and mental health and well-being of the community by attracting people into active, safe, social and energising spaces. Squares invite people to stay, interact and connect with one another and promote a cooperative, entrepreneurial and culturally robust society.
Like a box of chocolates, squares promote the diversity of our communities. Without them, Forrest Gump would have never shared his incredible journey.