Wired Coverage: Public Spaces for Protest

The Secret to a Happy, Healthy City? Places for People to Protest

February 10, 2017 

By Aarian Marshall 

WHAT MAKES A city great? Museums and culture, sure. Maybe a good opera company or a constellation of dance crews. Bars with fresh garnishes, good schools, a historic building or 20.

Maybe your first answer here isn't “a park!” or “that dinky plaza near my office where I eat lunch twice a week!”

Yet more and more research says that open public spaces and streets are a key to making a city great—for nature and bench designers, sure, but not just that. These are where people gather naturally, to socialize and, in a politicized time, to protest. And those two functions make public space the key to the economic and social health of cities.

Urban planners have long known what’s up. In the late 1970s, the sociologist William H. Whyte famously creeped on public plazas in New York City to determine which ones fostered community and activity and which didn’t. Last month, just before the Women’s March descended on New York's 5thAvenue, 13 design, architecture, and civics experts wrote an open letter to New York Mayor Bill De Blasio recommending ways to return New York City's land to its citizens. They pitched increasing the size and number of local parks and plazas, improving access to these gathering places, and pedestrianizing major thoroughfares in midtown Manhattan.

In other words: Give people more beautiful, functional space to do with as they please—whether those activities involve posterboard and bullhorns or just sunbathing with friends. "Public spaces should fundamentally allow for expression," says Shin-pei Tsay, a signatory to the De Blasio letter and head of the Gehl Institute, an urban research and advocacy organization.

A Good Space. 

These places of respite can even be good for your health. Research out of Sweden finds urban-dwellers who reported visiting parks more often are also less likely to report stress-related illnesses. A Canadian study finds exposure to trees correlates with test subjects' “health perception”—that is, feeling good—in the same way that more making money or aging Benjamin Button-style might. Just one walk through a “natural setting,” according to a 2008 journal article, positively affects study participants’ emotions, abilities to reflect on their problems, even attention capacity. Stop checking Twitter and, as Florence Williams' new book The Nature Fix might have it, get thee outside!

But those natural spaces have to be more than just a few trees or benches plunked into the middle of a concrete expanse. “The values of public spaces are very site specific,” says architect Justin Garrett Moore, who directs New York City’s Public Design Commission. The best planners, he says, consider not only a space's geography, but its cultural and emotional context. Moore points to Hunter’s Point South, along the East River in Queens, New York, as a public place that’s gotten it right: It’s where kids from the high school across the street can hang, but also hosts community-specific programming (a club music-tinted fall DJ set, anyone?), a big Astro-turf lawn for pick-up games, cycling paths, and a space for movies and free yoga and meditation classes.

Hunter's Point South also hosted a Bernie Sanders rally last year, and that's no accident. Lovely parks are often great for public demonstrations. “The ideal space for a protest is big enough, has good visibility, has places like steps where people can be at different levels and sit,” says Claire Weisz, a principal with the New York firm XYZ Architects. Being able to hear and see is important in a swarm: People, unlike fish or ants, have a very hard time transmitting information through bodily cues. This is why the Washington Mall, or the newly redesigned public square in Cleveland, Ohio, are so ace: They give demonstrators and loiterers alike the sight lines to make them feel safe (no riot cops hidden behind a bend) and equal (everyone can see everybody else).

The ideal space is also one “you can approach from all directions,” Weisz says, allowing more and more pun-lovers to join without penning (or pinning) anyone in. Panic is the enemy of the masses—when two large groups collided at an intersection in Mecca, Saudi Arabia during the annual Hajj in 2015, hundreds of people were crushed and asphyxiated in the ensuing stampede.

Taking It to the Streets 

As for protests on the march, pedestrianization—that is, making streets safer for the foot-bound people who use them—helps there, too. Carving out more space for tourists using thick curbs and bollards in New York City’s famed Times Square made the space safer for walkers, but also for the businesses around them: A bomb-laden truck has a much harder time getting near a Broadway theater when barriers block the way.

Busy, office-lined throughways can also impose a spatial logic on protests. “I think one of the beautiful things about the Women’s Marches in New York City and Los Angeles is, we were taking over intersections,” says Tsay. A march that becomes too big for a sidewalk might spill into one lane of traffic, then two. Medians, pavement markings, and curbs are infrastructural elements that provide organizational cues to a disorderly human mass.

“The idea behind protests is that you have the right to expression, and that includes taking up space,” says Tsay. Sometimes taking up space is political; sometimes it's personal. In cities, it can—and should—be both.

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