City Squares

Jamaa El-Fna in Marrakesh, Morrocco
Photo by Phil Midds via Flickr

Liz Waid and Adam Navis tell about the history of City Squares. These places are important centers of cultural and economic activity.

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Voice 1  

Welcome to Spotlight. I’m Liz Waid.

Voice 2  

And I’m Adam Navis. Spotlight uses a special English method of broadcasting. It is easier for people to understand, no matter where in the world they live.

Voice 3  

“Friends, comrades and fellow South Africans.

I greet you all in the name of peace, democracy and freedom for all... I send special greetings to the people of Cape Town. This city has been my home for three decades. Your mass marches and other forms of struggle have continually brought strength to all political prisoners.”

Voice 1  

Nelson Mandela spoke these words in Cape Town, South Africa. The year was 1990. Mandela had just been released from prison after 27 years. The first place he went was the city’s main square – named Grand Parade. A city square is a large public space in a city. And Cape Town’s main square was special to Mandela. It was where the mass marches that he talked about took place while he was in prison. The day he was released, the square was crowded with thousands of people waiting for him.

Voice 2  

Important events like this often take place in city squares. They are also centres for daily business and many other activities. Today’s Spotlight is on city squares. We look at how they are used and why they are important.

Voice 1  

City squares are not just simple places. Many people have tried to define what they are and what they mean. One book that tries to do this is called “City Squares”. Catie Marron wrote this book along with many other famous writers. They explored how people use these large empty spaces in the middle of cities around the world. They wrote about why the possibilities of city squares are so important.

Voice 4  

“City squares are planned empty spaces. They are defined, first of all, by what they are not. Squares are a part of city life. They are neither natural nor standing alone. They are of the city as well as in it, but how they are used changes through history. Because of their very emptiness, they are full of possibility.”

Voice 2  

People have built and used city squares since ancient times. All through history, city squares have helped people to develop economically. They have been centres of trade. They have helped cities to express their culture. And they remain popular areas for important social and political events.

Voice 1  

City squares are not always in the shape of a square. Some are round. Some are shaped like a fan, or half circle. Others are long and thin. Often, they even have special names that help people remember an important person or event in that city or country. But whatever their shape or name, city squares are not like any other place in a city.

Voice 2  

Many city squares are still important for a city’s economy. Rynek Glowny, is the city square of Krakow, Poland. It is a large square with a long building in the middle. This building is a market. People can walk through and buy food, clothing and many other items. There are also restaurants around the outside of the square. On one end is a large, famous church. People come to Rynek Glowny to shop, to eat, to pray and just to meet other people.

Voice 1  

Another city square with a market is Jamaa El-Fna in Marrakesh, Morrocco. It is full of colourful business and activity. Catie Marron described a day there to The Huffington Post:

Voice 4  

“It begins with local merchants selling fresh orange juice for people to drink. They arrive when the sun rises. And through the day, you will see lamp sellers, garden merchants, henna painters, medical experts, fortune tellers, snake charmers, dancers and musicians.”

Voice 2  

City squares are also a place for people, especially children, to learn about their culture. There, people taste traditional food and experience music and dancing. They meet and talk with people of all ages who all have different experiences. The individual culture and customs of a city are shared in its square.

Voice 1  

Mexico City’s Zócalo has been a place for people to meet since the 1400s. It was the historical centre of the Aztec Empire. Today, this huge empty space is in the middle of one of the largest cities in the world. The square creates a space for people to gather and to celebrate. A large Mexican flag flies in the middle of the square. People from all positions in society can come to the square. They can meet and talk in a space that belongs to everyone.

Voice 2  

This common belonging also means that city squares are often places of political activity. City squares have been areas for meetings and protests for hundreds of years. These can be in support of the government. For example, huge parades often happen in Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. But often the political gatherings in squares are against the government. In 2011, thousands of people gathered in the city square of Cairo, Egypt. Tahrir Square is a large traffic circle. The crowds filled the square. These people worked together to make political change in their country.

Voice 1  

Squares are often also places that travellers visit. Tourists from many countries come to see the Red Square, in Moscow, Russia. This is because it has a strong political history. It is also very beautiful. The colourful government building, the Kremlin, is on this square. Local people and tourists pass through the square to enter nearby government buildings, parks, museums and other places of interest.

Voice 2  

But some people think that too much tourism can be a problem for city squares. In the past, city leaders have met to discuss the way people use city squares changes. They have said that tourism in squares can lead to less local cultural activity. Other changes in cities also make problems for city squares. For example, as cities grow larger, people live farther from the centre. They may be less likely to visit the city square.

Voice 1  

Many people agree that it is important to use and protect city squares. Journalist Michael Kimmelman is among them. He told the news organization NPR why he thinks people need city squares:

Voice 5  

“For me a square is about an idea of what a city life can be. And it has to do with a sense of community, a sense of shared values, a sense of greater possibilities, and a sense of humanity."

Voice 2  

What do you think about city squares? Does your city have one? Have you ever been to a city square? What did you do there? Tell us about your experiences! You can leave a comment on our website, or our Facebook page at

Voice 1  

The writer of this programme was Rena Dam. The producer was Michio Ozaki. The voices you heard were from the United Kingdom and the United States. All quotes were adapted for this programme and voiced by Spotlight. You can listen to this program again, and read it, on the internet at This programme is called ‘City Squares.’

Voice 2  

You can also get our programmes delivered directly to your Android or Apple device through our free official ‘Spotlight English’ app. We hope you can join us again for the next Spotlight programme. Goodbye.

Copyright 2016 by All rights reserved. No portion of Spotlight audio, video, and/or scripts shall be used without express written permission.


Does your city have a city square? What happens there?


Avatar Spotlight
said on September 05, 2016

Although Damascus is an ancient city , and the capital of Syria , it has a large squares , dedicated for trafic , not tourism and cultural activities , unfortunately !

Kaleb Kolaibi's avatar
Kaleb Kolaibi
said on September 05, 2016

In my country (Yemen) and Ethiopia where I live as refugee, and in the third world countries , the squares of cities are places for the unemployed and beggars.
God bless you

Severino Ramos da Silva's avatar
Severino Ramos da Silva
said on September 05, 2016

From: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) (Severino Ramos)
To: spotlight programme
Subject: answer to the question above
Date: Monday 05, September 2016
São Paulo SP Brazil

Dear Liz Waid, Rena Dam, Adam Navis, and Michio Ozaki:

At first, I want to thank you to bring us readers and learners of English more one great article. Thanks!
Yes, It does. There happens many things such as: selling of the products from China, junk foods, and other products. But, unfortunately, there are many drug addicts, thieves, panhandlers/beggars, and other things.
However, the mayor Mister Fernando Haddad of the São Paulo city has been trying to organize this situation with his group of workers and the situation of the city squares has improved so much.
Finally, I want to tell you the situation of one beautiful and organized city square in my city where I was born in Pernambuco countryside. Its name is Praça Nossa Senhora do Rosário. In English it is called Square Our Lady of Rosario. This city square is located in the centre of the small city of Jaboatão dos Guararapes next to the Recife capital of the Pernambuco.
In this city square there were a television set to the people watch the News averynight, people selling sweets and local foods, people shownig plays of local arts, and other good things to enjoy them. It was wonderful.
However, I do not know how this good place is because I do not live there any more. If you know more information about it, you can access to search about it.

Yours regards,
Severino Ramos

Avatar Spotlight
Torun citizen
said on September 09, 2016

Old Market Square in Torun used for many purposes. It has the shape of a square and is surrounded by monuments all sides. This is the main meeting point for people. There, we meet for dating, for private or business meetings. There are held political meetings or outdoor concerts. Why? It is a symbol of the city. When you are there you feel 800 years of history of the city knowing that a few hundred years ago lived and passed there Nicolaus Copernicus

Avatar Spotlight
said on March 19, 2019

I live in Brasilia, the capital of Brazil. Here we have some of the biggest squares in the world, but we do not have a city square. There is the Three Powers Square, a great and wonderful place, supposedly a town square, but the government does not allow people to crowd in it. I think our city square is the social net on the internet ...

Avatar Spotlight
said on March 21, 2019

We live in family. We live in community. We serve in family. We serve in community. Life has ups and downs. Our lives have ups and downs. We exist in favourable conditions. We exist in difficulty. We live in family. We live in community. We have a simple way of living, a happiness way of living. We will not be able to exist if there is no love in life.