Aleksandra Litorowicz, Bogna Świątkowska
As we began work on the research project titled “Squares of Warsaw (to be reclaimed)”, we had no idea how broad a subject we were tackling. We wanted to ‘reclaim’ the squares for people, which mostly meant going beyond the car-centric approach to the role and vision of the city, given that many of Warsaw’s squares currently act as parking lots, junctions or multi-lane roads. Already the first meeting of our research team made us realize that there are many more squares in the city than indicated on the official map, and the scape of disturbing, intriguing and uplifting phenomena related to them keeps growing.
We looked at existing, revitalized and newly created squares as a resource whose elements are closely interdependent and whose dynamics go far beyond the collection of elements itself – our research showed that the ‘action’ or ‘happening’ of a square usually extends beyond the administrative borders that define it. Therefore, we assumed that by looking at urban squares, we are able to construct a narrative about the entire city – not just in spatial categories, but we can also find out more about the urban ‘software’, above all the social life of its inhabitants. We rather quickly moved away from treating squares as an enumerative collection that merely required an in-depth and systematic study. For us, squares have become the ‘keystones of urbanity’, which bind the urban structure together, but can also act as spaces of concentration and exchange of information, matter and citizen energy. Yet in order to get to know them in this manner, it was necessary to engage deeply in the research and go beyond classical research tools.
When choosing squares as a research or investment topic, it is worth asking ourselves about the role of these spaces – now and in the future. Squares have a greater evolutionary dynamics than buildings – they can react faster to changing needs, trends or accelerated urban lifestyles, including, among others, changes in the ways of working, mobility and identity. They function as a prism – when properly designed or used, they can open us up to new experiences and sensitize us to the purposes and rules of urban life. However, the landscape of Polish cities, and squares especially, usually testifies to something completely different – these spaces are very often designed with little or no thought and subjected to standard revitalization processes. In effect, the reproduce the forms and functions known for centuries, without trying to get to the very essence of the phenomenon known as a square and the possible positive, though less obvious, consequences of this search.
 The project was carried out in 2017–2019 by Puszka Foundation in partnership with Bęc Zmiana Foundation and co-financed by the city of Warsaw. More information: placewarszawy.pl
In the course of the research process we discovered that there is no such thing as a ‘typical Warsaw square’, unlike the ones we find in Paris or Barcelona. In an attempt to define the common features of surveyed spaces, we identified different types of squares, bearing in mind that not every urban square has to have the same functions. These included:
In the research process, as well as in broadening our idea of the possibilities of the given place, we were also aided by the adoption of our own typology, which aims to best capture the properties, potentiality and meaning of the space. In our case, this meant coining the following terms: oasis, euphoria and constellation squares, momentary, controlled and purpose-built squares. These new word-metaphors transmitted our intuitions, allowing us to develop some of them, radicalize others, and justify others still – something that would not have been possible without going beyond the rational, normative typology. So let us create a language of speaking (and thinking) about squares, let us constantly update it, let us blur the boundaries between definitions to arrive at our own ones, and use the method of constant comparison oriented towards the extraction of meanings and senses.
According to classical definitions, a culturally developed space becomes a place, for example an urban square. So a square can be whatever we call a square – if we define the criteria for it. On the other hand, a place named a square by urban planners or officials does not become a square by the very act of creating it and ‘topping it up’ with infrastructure. While researching Warsaw’s squares, we encountered this very contradiction: although the spaces we analysed were squares in the administrative sense, in reality they represented a range of completely different spatial typologies, encumbered with different problems. Adopting this line of thinking and reflecting on our own typology forces us to be careful in approaching each space individually and to better address actions aimed at its improvement. It also facilitates bringing out its – often unique – potentials.
The research methodology combined various approaches to what constitutes a Warsaw square and what can be seen in and through it, i.e. diverse, not only local, processes and tendencies. The team consisted of experts and researchers from many disciplines, including architecture, urban planning, landscape architecture, biology, Warsaw studies, cultural studies and sociology. The implementation of research in an interdisciplinary group allowed us to expand the initial assumptions about the research area – researchers and experts, respondents, consultants, participants of our workshops and walks drew attention to further threads that could prove to be an interesting and valuable source of knowledge about the city. In the first phase of the study, field researchers made a detailed inventory of the space according to observation sheets and conducted non-participatory observations. The collected data was compiled in a table and map-based database accessible to the entire team, enabling a comparative analysis of the squares. This included the boundaries of the squares, types of roads, height of buildings, % coverage by the local plan, dominant features, number of trees, commemorations, service points on the public ground floor, square metres of biologically active surface, sources of drinking water, presence of blank walls and vacant buildings, types of light sources, etc. We also conducted observations at different times of the day and week, as well as short interviews in the squares and an online survey. We asked respondents about symbols, associations, activities they do in the squares, and important/unimportant, liked/disliked places. In turn, the visual material included aerial photographs, photographic documentation of the squares, documentation kept by researchers that was oriented towards specific parameters as well as panoramas of the squares. Research team meetings and individual consultations were also held.
We defined our approach to researching squares as ‘action research’. Apart from using traditional research techniques (such as questionnaires, observation, queries, analysis of existing materials), selected areas were exposed to various actions and interventions, so that the resulting knowledge would lead to the emergence of artistic or social situations. These included three performances created by artists who interpreted selected research results, walks meant to uncover knowledge as well as interventions and research conducted by students of architecture and landscape architecture. Both the research and the undertaken activities were aimed not so much at describing and exhaustively characterizing an existing resource, but at continuously activating reflection on the resource we are researching. This was also made possible by discussions, established collaborations (with municipal offices, cultural and arts institutions, universities, entrepreneurs), workshops with experts and residents, meetings of Local Landlords, interviews and meetings. The collected material, in turn, enabled us to summarize two exhibitions, which were not only a presentation of the research results, but which complemented the research material with reflections, experiments and diagnoses through a discursive and artistic programme. This constantly updated, performative approach to the process, embedded in action and interdisciplinary collaborations, has also ensured a greater sustainability of the results – as the extended definition of ‘what constitutes a square’ that we have developed favours the practice of studying squares in other cities with not necessarily similar public spaces. The research in action also attempted to stimulate a continuous debate during the research itself, and not only through the final report and recommendations – we reacted on an ongoing basis by taking part in discussions, initiating them, organizing discussion panels, asking mayoral candidates and the historic preservation officer about squares, as well as constantly updating the placewarszawy.pl website and informing about the next steps of the project through social media.
 We refer to the tradition of action research, oriented towards the collection of data from everyday practice, the participatory dimension of the researchers’ presence in their environment and the undertaking of activities (artistic, cultural, meetings, discussions, etc.) in order to co-create knowledge and diagnosis of the given issue.
These following recommendations for urban squares have been developed for those who are not indifferent to the fate of these spaces and those who are responsible for shaping them in the city: students, researchers, experts, residents, artists, architects and designers, officials and investors, as well as Local Landlords. The list contains selected recommendations that should help to shape a good square, assisting both investors, designers, local governments and residents in articulating their expectations of a good square – a square that would function effectively not only within the spatial landscape of the city, but also in social life.
Apart from the minimum standards that should apply to every public space (cleanliness and quality of design, consistency and systematization of elements), we recommend finding and highlighting the potentials of a given space, for example through appropriate signage or bold design gestures, adequate lighting, appropriate scale of elements placed in the square, introducing flexible arrangements (more than one option of use) or consistent aesthetics that highlights the context of the place.
Define and systematize the appearance of advertising media, signs, street furniture and railings in the squares. Adjust them to the provisions of the Warsaw Landscape Resolution.
Revitalize squares by creating harmonized places with a metropolitan character and a ‘green’ face – some good examples are new or renovated squares that combine the transport function with ‘landscape’ solutions (vegetation, water), such as Grzybowski Square.
Treat vegetation and – more broadly – the microclimate as a narrative potential. Vegetation can record the history of a square, representing memory in a different way than through monuments, it can create the history of a place anew or refer to the past.
The presence of shade, vegetation and water is important especially for squares dominated by transport.
Maximize the biologically active surface area as far as possible in synergy with a substantial tree canopy (this is the area of the square where we can stand under the tree crown and take shelter in its shimmering shadow).
Avoid paved surfaces that prevent water retention, while creating infrastructure that promotes water retention on the surface, in the soil and underground, or slows its circulation and purifies it.
Squares can act as ‘portals’ to nature, they can convey the importance of contact with nature – especially in the case of unorganized squares, dominated by one function or deprived of functionality. With the right idea, we can observe the changes of the seasons and thus become aware of our climate zone and the fact we are embedded in nature, even in the city. Instead of building over and ‘arranging’ squares, try to subordinate some of them to the feeling of climate. Let them become monuments celebrating our biophilia.
Use the animating function of water, for example in the form of fountains. Their presence helps to attract a diverse group of users. Note: a multimedia fountain is not the only possible design solution!
Recognize the ecological potential of squares.
Remember about non-human perspectives and cohabitants of our squares.
Design vegetation in squares as part of a well thought-out spatial composition.
Include a landscape architect in the design process.
Ensure the diversity of vegetation and biodiversity.
Create long-term strategies for plant selection (e.g. climate adapted) and water management through vegetation, including rainwater management.
Take care of existing vegetation.
Remember to place water feeders in the square.
Involve vegetation conservators. Of course, this is a question of funds, but perhaps if we start by mapping the interests and capacities of institutions and residents, and then propose the idea (vegetation as a symbol, a community lawn), we will be able to come up with a way to build an emotional relationship with vegetation. Social care of vegetation is also an expression of awareness and responsibility.
There are four hours of twilight per day – dusk and dawn – during which contrast and colour rendering become important. This is why it is crucial for lighting in squares to adapt to changes in light intensity. Bring down the random sum of road lighting, windows, advertising and holiday decorations, and reduce light pollution in Warsaw’s squares.
Coordinate the colour of lights within a single streetlamp style.
Take into account the role of light and shade when thinking about the varying appearance of architectural relief at different times of day. Adjust it to sun exposure and take into account zones that are permanently in the shadow.
Textures and colours
Remember that the function of a square changes over time, so design as flexibly as possible and do not limit yourself to reactive infrastructure that remains unchanged over the years.
Diverse functions make squares alive and users feel good. Mono-functionality robs squares of their social potential. Avoid the dominance of one function.
Avoid combining mutually exclusive functions, which can cause tensions and disputes.
Keep ground floors open and functions available on the ground floor.
Avoid restrictions and divisions between bottom-up and top-down managed squares: life can be spontaneous and lively, but different events can also be organized and animated in the same square.
Let squares have different temporary functions – they can come alive at weekends and on festive occasions, for example.
Dare to prototype – test objects, ways of organizing traffic, etc.
Squares should serve as spaces of interaction understood as the possibility of intentional meeting with another human being. Treat them as meeting places, places that ‘attract’ and promote the idea of openness. Create cafés and restaurants. The square also provides an opportunity to be with others without getting to know them. Create a people-oriented environment, where everyone can find a space for themselves (also alone), taking into account the needs of different social groups.
Enable activities such as sport, protest and other forms of energy exchange. The ways of spending time that will be chosen are determined by the type of space.
Public transport stops should be user friendly. They are used in different seasons and serve not only for waiting, but are also places of contact between visitors and the city.
Support small trade.
Point out the role of pleasure in public space, design the space to provide pleasant stimuli, experiences, relaxation, joy, fun.
Educate people to use public squares and spaces. Such educational initiatives include breakfast markets, outdoor cinemas, closing streets for additional activities, and other new urban rituals. Address them to all audiences.
Remember that urban spaces are increasingly hybrid, combining what is physically experienced by the body and perceived/enabled by IT/online technologies.
 Reference to the modernist idea of housing education described, among others, by Magda Matysek-Imielińska.
Take care to harmonize the uses of space by different users.
Put a stop to the domination of car traffic on squares and the transfer of transport functions to them – in consequence, they are cut up with traffic arteries, turned into communication hubs or filled with overground car parks.
Pay attention to the aesthetics as well as the technical, functional and material standards of planned and existing transport infrastructure. Strive to improve the accessibility of public transport stops and ensure that the squares are consistent with the city’s cycling routes.
Take care of pedestrian zones and green areas with pedestrian traffic – they are an important element of the design of the space in squares and have a significant impact on their functions.
The most common activities carried out in most urban squares are: crossing the square, waiting for someone or for a means of transport. Notice the value of crossing and its city-forming character: it is exploratory, good for your health, and surprising.
Rely on the potential of Local Landlords – those who are actually present in the given spaces and, by extension, who care most about them. These are local social organizations, local companies and local institutions which are able to stand up for their immediate surroundings and are ready to take permanent action for their benefit – not to repossess the space, but to take responsibility for it, offering mature co-management.
Recognize the potential of organic placemaking in squares and support it.
Remember that ownership affects how we experience space. The intention with which a square is created is – especially recently – rooted in ownership.
Develop tools that oblige the authors of squares (local authorities, developers, investors) to adapt the newly created square spaces to the social role they should play. Placemaking, the recently fashionable art of creating user-friendly and attractive places, is an ally of residents here. Commit decisionmakers to mechanisms that guarantee the quality of social spaces.
 For more information, go to Artur Jerzy Filip’s text: placewarszawy.pl/pl/lokalni-gospodarze/rekomendacja/42
The research results, recommendations as well as a description of activities undertaken as part of the “Squares of Warsaw (to be reclaimed)” project are available online at placewarszawy.pl and facebook.com/placewawy,
The project was realized in 2017–19 thanks to a grant from the city of Warsaw.
Aleksandra Litorowicz is the president of Puszka Foundation, cultural studies scholar, researcher, author and editor-in-chief of PUSZKA, a website about Warsaw’s street and public art, FUTUWAWA, a competition for Warsaw of the future, and an educational website about Polish public art www.sztukapubliczna.pl. She is the co-author of many research projects (including a nationwide study of monumental painting) and lecturer at the School of Ideas, SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Warsaw. She coordinated the three-year research project “Squares of Warsaw (to be reclaimed)” and is the editor of the “Orientuj się!” section of the NN6T cultural magazine.
Bogna Świątkowska is the originator, founder and president of the board of the Bęz Zmiana Foundation, with which she realized several dozen projects devoted to public space, architecture and design as well as competitions addressed to young architects and designers. She is the initiator and editor-in-chief of the Notes na 6 tygodni magazine. Before that, she was the editor-in-chief of the first popcultural magazine Machina (1998–2001) and the author of numerous texts, interviews, radio and TV shows on contemporary popular culture. Świątkowska received a scholarship from the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage (2014) and was a member of the Social Board for Culture at the Mayor of Warsaw (2012–15), the Board of Architecture and Public Space of Warsaw (2015–18), as well as the Expert Team on Local Culture at the National Centre for Culture (2015–17).