Historically, it was derived from the Spanish hierarchical urban grid- the status of the building and the inhabitants increased with proximity to the open square at the center. The hierarchical form of the grid made a center. It's an interesting contrast to the Jeffersonian grid used in the planning of many US cities, which was much more egalitarian- since all the squares were equal in importance, it severely decreased the strength of any space as 'center'.
In the hillside town of Cuetzalan, the zocalo is broken into a series of terraces and steps:
The churchyard B is largely unprogrammed, including only benches along the walls, and a large pole in the center which indigenous dancers ascend for the famous flying dance. The main point of access to the churchyard is through the lower plaza A which is where there were some cart vendors set up, things for sale on blankets, and also a large trampoline for kids. The road which passes by A continues north steeply downhill so the northwest corner has a great view of the hills across the valley.
A few feet higher is a public garden plaza, C, with a high gazebo in the center and a lot of low plantings and a few trees. Continuous seating along the planters coupled with the shade meant a lot of people were sitting here. The planters were centered in the plaza, leaving ample open space around.
Marching uphill, D is actually a series of wide steps which could function as amphitheater seating for events at the base or a quartet playing in the gazebo. During market days, the steps fill with rows of blankets and vendors selling fruits, pottery, flowers, and housewares. At the top of the steps, E is a flat avenue which connects one of the main streets leading in to the center, and has a series of shallow stores along the north side, tucked into the hill. One must then climb a flight of stairs on either side to ascend to F, not really part of the plaza, but still important as an overlook and passenger drop-off zone. From there, you have a great view of the entire zocalo stepping down below you, and the guardrail is wide enough that one can comfortably sit on it.
Also vital is the wide path and stairs running along the west side of the zocalo which joins the various plazas together and connects the major streets which lead to the zocalo. On market days, people drink and eat in the shade in front of the restaurants and bars, and on the other side of the path, vendors sell meat, vegetables, fried dishes, and small handcrafts.
Some things I can lean from Cuetzalan:
- Provide a mix of programmed and unprogrammed space.
- People like to look at people, terracing allows stairs which make things more interesting and inviting, but also allows the people in higher terraces to get a better view of the lower terraces, and it exposes the activities on the higher terraces to the people on the lower terraces.
- Lots of seating in different spots with different characteristics. Public, intimate, sunny, shady, hardscape, softscape.
- Don't make the the big public space the only connector. It's not an intuitive leap, since you want to have a lot of people moving through spaces to make it lively and get people to engage with it. But sometimes people just want to get from A to B without browsing the flowers or stopping to chat. If a space becomes so programmed and slow and full of people, people will begin to avoid it as a bottleneck. Offer public space as an incentive and delightful temptation, rather then something that is required to plow through.
- Reading from Jane Jacobs, adjacency is vital. The church and administrative center are vital to the functioning of the city, so people are constantly coming and going. Aadditionally, the restaurants and bars and hotels feed off of and enhance the pedestrian traffic coming to the Zocaló.
- Provide a plethora of ways in and out but only a few major ones.