PORTLAND — Discussion concerning Congress Square has progressed for more than four years. Arguments fall along these lines:

The plaza is an island in a sea of urban asphalt, cherished by the neighborhood, awaiting rebirth as a verdant oasis. Parkland must never be surrendered. The city of Portland is caving to corporate interests, playing us for fools.

The plaza is a failed public space, populated largely by assorted vagrants (I trust that peace activists and preachers are exempt from this characterization). Resources aren’t available to redevelop the plaza, and the current proposal is the best deal going.

Neither of these positions addresses the key issue: How large should a plaza at this location be, and what elements will convert it to an asset? Observations by two seminal researchers in the field of urban design, William Holly Whyte and Christopher Alexander, provide insight.

Alexander’s “The Pattern Language,” 40 years after publication, remains a beacon in urban design. His research shows that plazas appear deserted when they contain more than 300 square feet per person.

When places appear empty, people tend not to sit and stay. A 10,000-square-foot plaza requires 33 people to feel alive, while one of 3,600 square feet requires just 12. So the problem isn’t that plazas are too small, it’s they’re often too large. Are you more inclined to enter an empty restaurant or one that’s lively? Is something lacking at the empty establishment?

Whyte’s “The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces” is based on thousands of hours of observations. His conclusion is straightforward: The number of users at a plaza is not correlated to size. Some of the most loved and well used places are quite small – some of the least used are much larger.

He observed that use and enjoyment correlate with design, seating, sunlight, shade, plantings, street orientation, food and activity. But not size.

Let’s take a walk through five of Portland’s downtown plazas. Walking to work daily over the past 15 years from the West End to downtown, I’ve observed these places in the early morning, around noontime and late afternoon.

Post Office Park is well designed and maintained. As in all our plazas, not much happens in the mornings. Around the noon hour, a dozen people eat and socialize at any one time on the most pleasant of days.

In the evening the action shifts to the boulders near Middle and Exchange streets as young people congregate and socialize – but rarely, if ever, more than a dozen. The lesson: Even our best plaza rarely attracts more than a large handful of people.

Across Exchange Street, at Tommy’s Park, the action surrounds Mark’s Hot Dogs, the grassy knoll and the diagonal pathway. Only about half of the space is effectively utilized. The lesson: Food is key.

Victor Kahill’s lobsterman statue defines the cobblestone plaza linked to two small seating areas at Temple and Middle streets. Many people stroll through, but few sit and enjoy the scene. The seating area attracts some, but given its proximity to the parking garage, it’s not exactly a sanctuary. The lesson: Plazas near busy intersections don’t attract crowds.

Monument Square is our largest and most active plaza. It’s well used for social protests, the farmers market, concerts, restaurant tables and food sellers. Hundreds pass through daily walking to downtown destinations. But fewer than you’d expect sit on the benches to relax, socialize and take in the passing crowd. The lesson: Lots of shade and a bit of wind, combined with hustle and bustle, don’t entice people to linger.

At Longfellow Square the statue is fabulous, the concert venue, bars and restaurants are abuzz. The square is well landscaped, lighted and maintained. But few stay for an extended visit. The lesson: Not every nice place lures people to stay, but they remain places to value.

Our downtown plazas afford much to appreciate and aspects worthy of improvement. But it’s doubtful anyone would remark, “They’re nice, but I wish they were larger” or “They’re nice, but much too crowded to enjoy.” Size just isn’t the issue.

Congress Square can be improved with level elevation, seating in sun and shade, trees, flowers, food sellers and events. You’ve got to accommodate the preacher, assorted activists and activities at the intersection. Design will be critical to its success at any size. But evidence suggests a smaller plaza at Congress Square may well be more intensely used, enjoyed and appreciated.

— Special to the Press Herald