Theories on Public Spaces: A Case Study of Trafalgar Square

“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody” — Jane Jacobs (1961).

City squares form a powerful symbol for our cities. They are places the general public use for recreation and socialisation (Amin, 2008). City square as a public space provides an opportunity for people to come together and voice their opinions on various issues. The amenities the squares provides such as seating/walking space, events, gatherings or public art can emulate thought processes where people can express themselves in creative ways, that would otherwise not be present. One such city square is Trafalgar Square in London which was designed by Sir Charles Barry in 1840 (London Assembly, 2016). City squares such as Trafalgar Square create an openness among the community that invites people to come together in a shared space. Trafalgar Square was first at the center of a traffic roundabout with hardly any pedestrians, but was redeveloped in 2003 to make a part of the square pedestrianised with new public art installations . This pedestrian access in Trafalgar Square provides the public more opportunities to use the space on a regular basis. There are many aspects to a public space such as Trafalgar Square which can be studied, however, this essay will particularly concentrate on the sociality of the public space.

The combinations of entities present in a single space contributes to people’s sociality of the particular space. There are many aspects to sociality of space, this includes the ways in which humans use the space. The concepts of sociality for public spaces, indicated in literature, includes democratic use of space, use for a ‘thrown togetherness’ of different elements, security and vibrancy of public space which includes eyes on the street and the importance of sensory input in public spaces. This essay will take examples from such scholars in urbanism, examining their theories on the social aspects of public space, which makes it a more humanistic space, and apply it to the observations of Trafalgar Square in London.

Sociality of Public Space

There are many urban scholars who have provided theories on the sociality of public space. ‘Sociality’ indicates people’s emotions and feelings towards a space and when people feel a sense of inclusion towards a space, they tend to use it for a longer time and more frequently. Jane Jacobs and Jan Gehl advocate for sociality of space. The character of the public space, the people surrounding it, physical structures present in the space such as art or fountains, including traffic noise, can impact the way the space is used and understood. This is understood through Doreen Massey’s theory of thrown-togetherness where she suggests that the various elements and structures present in the public space, including the way the space is built has an impact on how people use it. Jane Jacobs’ concept of eyes on the street is similar and is a part of sociality because when people are aware of their surroundings, even in public spaces, they have a greater understanding of the space (Jacobs, 1961).

In relation to Trafalgar Square, the changes that took place in 2003 transformed the vibrancy of the space in a positive light. The square is now attached to the North Terrace which was pedestrianised so that it is linked to cafes and the National Gallery. The Nelson Column which marks a major historical significance, is usually seen as a point for casual meetings and a place for people-encounters. Nelson Column’s location at the center of Trafalgar Square is seen to be very convenient by visitors to meet acquaintances. Sociality of public space will be further discussed in specific parts, to understand how people utilize public spaces.

Public Space for Democracy

Trafalgar Square serves many functions and is also seen as a “center for national democracy and protest” (London Assembly, 2016, p.2). Scholars argue that democracy of public space is a part of ‘sociality’ of space. Democracy suggests the different ways people express themselves in public spaces, heeding to the assumption that the space is publicly recognised. A recent example of a democratic activity in Trafalgar Square is an anti-austerity protest where “An estimated 50,000 protesters descended on central London to demand an end to austerity and more investment in health, homes, jobs and education” (Burke, 2016, p.1). This event had an impact on the society and put forth a strong message, although the government did not consider the protest seriously. This can be seen as both positive and negative, where voicing one’s opinion on an issue in a public space can send a powerful message to the community. However, whether actual change will occur because of an open protest is uncertain. Public protests in city square might not be a healthy way to voice one’s opinion but it is very powerful in gaining attention.

A prominent example of a public protest was Tahrir Square in Egypt where the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 was held to overthrow Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak which could be understood as a successful protest to voice a democratic opinion. It is such global events which influence protests in Trafalgar Square and make it a convenient space for citizens to be democratic. There have been many such protests and parades held in Trafalgar Square. An example of a parade in Trafalgar Square is the annual anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar on 21st October by Sea Cadet Corps in London. Such demonstrations are important because democratic spaces do not discriminate towards the public and provides the same opportunity to all citizens, which is also the case with Trafalgar Square. The public see Trafalgar Square as a place to express their freedom of speech and ability to create change in the space. Scholars argue that change takes place when the space is used for strong protests and the historic presence of protests taken place in Trafalgar Square makes it a significant space for the public.

Mix of Uses in Public Space

Doreen Massey’s theory of ‘thrown-togetherness’ is very relevant to the form and function of Trafalgar Square. Thrown-togetherness is when a range of different elements present in the public space contribute to how people feel in the space, particularly if they feel included and a sense of belonging in the space. Massey states that the surrounding environs around the squares, such as cafes, art, museums, theatres can also contribute to making the space more inclusive and welcoming to the public. This is evident in Trafalgar Square because it is known to hold many prominent public artworks which makes people contemplate and gives purpose to the public space. Trafalgar Square also has a cafe and the National Gallery in its surroundings which contribute to its relaxed environ. Massey considers this significant to the public because such public spaces, act as a stimulator for a combination of thoughts, activities and creative encounters to take place. This theory can be linked to Jane Jacob’s ‘eyes on the street’ as Jacobs suggests that when there are more people in the public realm, there is a sense of security and awareness in the public space. The usual crowd in Trafalgar Square where people use it regularly to meet and greet, makes it an example of ‘eyes on the street’ as it could be thought of as a fairly secure place.

In regards to Massey’s thrown-togetherness, there are creative dimensions to Trafalgar Square such as The Fourth Plinth which is a north-west plinth usually a center of attraction for many temporary public art displays. This element in Trafalgar Square, makes it “one of the most talked-about and photographed public art spaces in the country” (Clack, 2015, p.1). Here, we can see a form of ‘situated multiplicity’ where there is a “thrown togetherness of bodies, mass and matter, and of many uses and needs in a shared physical space” (Amin, 2008, p.8). This suggests the combination of material things with human encounters in specific and situated ways, that indicates that the public space can be unique, interesting and vibrant.

To take this concept further, Ash Amin suggests that situated multiplicity is the “mingling of bodies, human and non-human in close physical proximity, regulated by the rhythms of intervention, order and control, generated by multiplicity” (Amin, 2008, p.13). An example of this is an activity on the fourth plinth by Antony Gormley in 2009, where he exhibited the human-sculpture art form ‘one and the other’ (Searle, 2009). In this space, for hundred days, around two thousand chosen members spent an hour on the fourth plinth enacting their moment of fame in anyway they wished. In an interview, Gormley stated “in the context of Trafalgar Square with its military, valedictory and male historical statues, this elevation of everyday life to the position formerly occupied by monumental art allows us to reflect on the diversity, vulnerability and particularity of the individual in contemporary society. It’s about people coming together to do something extraordinary and unpredictable.” It is such activities which initiate the coming together of elements in the space, which the regular spectators watching the event, along with other historical features present in the square, all come together to form a coherent whole in Trafalgar Square leading to ‘thrown togetherness’ and ‘situated multiplicity’.

Vibrant and Secure Public Space


One of the central theories coined by Jane Jacobs and William H Whyte was in relation to the security of public spaces. They thought people should feel secure in public space despite being among strangers (Jacobs, 1961). “In theory, “eyes on the street” creates a natural surveillance system” where the likelihood of more people being on the street or a public space, suggests that there is less chances of crime occurring in the space (Kahne, 2016, p. 1; Jacobs, 1961). However, this is not always prominent or evident in practical social situations, as crime can still take place with a large number of people present in a public space. Jacobs suggests that it is less likely when people are watching, and this might be true. Similar to Jacobs, William Whyte suggested that it was a “threat to urban civility” when there are fewer people present in public spaces such as city squares (Kahne, 2016, p.1). There has not been any major threats to Trafalgar Square in relation to security, although crimes at a lower level might occur. Trafalgar Square also has security guards and police officials in the place, reducing the level of crime that takes place in the square (London Assembly, 2016). However, being surrounded by people on a regular basis in a public space, can be secure and it is more likely that when a few people use a specific public space, more people tend to follow suit. There are some rules that need to be followed in Trafalgar Square which might make it safer for the public to use such as not climbing on the fountain and not feeding the pigeons. People usually follow these rules to avoid damage to the property, and usually learn by looking at what other people in the square are doing.

Jan Gehl takes this concept a step further and suggests that all the five senses of human beings — sight, touch, hearing, smell and taste — should be taken into consideration when building a public space (Gehl, 2010; Gehl, 2011; Hidalgo, 2014). This is because “opportunities for meetings and daily activities in the public space of a city enable one to be among, to see and to hear others, to experience other people functioning in various situations” (Gehl, 2011, p.15). This is because people are constantly interacting with one another, and Gehl suggests that even when people are not physically talking, in a public space, just being surrounded by another person is a ‘passive contact’ (Gehl, 2011; Gehl, 2010). This is not only because people feel secure being surrounded by other people, there is a sense of comfort and attraction to sit in a public space surrounded by other people, even if they are strangers (Gehl, 2010; Jacobs, 1961). Trafalgar Square provides such opportunities to visitors as they can sit and walk in the square (in the pedestrianised area) and with the regular events or activities that are provided in the square, people might also get to interact with strangers on a regular basis (London Assembly, 2016; Searle, 2009; Daily Telegraph, 2009). Gehl calls this “attractions on a pedestrianised street” which is presently evident in Trafalgar Square although the whole square is not yet pedestrianised (Gehl, 2011, p.32).

Gehl thinks there is room for improvement on Trafalgar Square, as it is not as utilized or modernized as some of the public spaces in New York, Melbourne and Copenhagen. This is because, as Gehl suggests, London has failed to update its public spaces on a regular basis. “Gehl’s criticism of London lay in its failure to address many of the conclusions of the ten-year-old report” (Dalsgaard, 2014, p.2). Here, Gehl compared London’s public spaces including Trafalgar Square to New York City which seemed to have made more progress in a shorter time. As he states, “New York has created a massive cycle network, pedestrianised Times Square and humanised Broadway. It has also built the East River Park, Brooklyn Bridge Park and the High-Line” in a ten year span. This indicates that on a global scale, Trafalgar Square could be improved. However, in comparison to some of New Zealand’s city squares such as Dunedin’s Octagon, Trafalgar Square can serve as a role model. In a recent survey conducted in Octagon, many residents in Dunedin feel that the space needs to be pedestrianised and made more friendly to use. Trafalgar Square’s mix of uses and pedestrian activity create a vibrancy that can serve as an example for improving New Zealand city squares.


In conclusion all the three elements explored in this essay, public space for democracy, mix of uses in public space, and vibrancy and security of public space, all form an important part of ‘sociality’ of public spaces. People are at the center for a public space to be social, and it is the activities and events that takes place in these spaces, which can change a particular public space by making it more vibrant. Trafalgar Square is an important example as it is one of the oldest and transformed city squares to date (London Assembly, 2016). It is also an example of how significant making a public space pedestrianised can have on the general public for everyday use. Some planning and urban theories have been taken into consideration in this essay, from Doreen Massey’s thrown-togetherness to Jane Jacob’s eyes on the street concept. The opportunities offered in Trafalgar Square for people to enjoy the space are plenty and one of the best examples of a civic square. This is because there are many activities present in the space from protests and rallies to public artworks on the plinths of the square. This makes Trafalgar Square a good example of ‘sociality’ of public space which can serve as an example for city squares worldwide.