Cities as Platforms for Protests

The National Mall has become a symbol for protest and pubic gatherings.

The National Mall has become a symbol for protest and pubic gatherings.

2017 may become known as the year of protests. Seemingly every week since the swearing in of the Trump administration there have been protest in our city streets, capital grounds, and even our airports. Putting aside current politics and sentiment, it’s intriguing to think about how cities act as platforms for people to raise their voice. But here’s the thing, rarely are these public spaces designed for spontaneous large gatherings of passionate people.

Most often the spaces where people protest are meant for casual use, with occasional large, well-coordinated events. Even the National Mall in DC wasn’t originally envisioned to be a space for mass protests by Pierre Charles L’Enfant, one of the original designers. Instead, it was meant for picnics and walks and other gatherings. The space has in fact been loved to death- if the designers knew that the space would be used so heavily by so many they probably wouldn’t have designed it with so much easily killable grass. However, despite this lack of intent, the Mall has become a symbol for protest, free speech, and expression.  In this way the Mall is an example of what every architect and urban designer dreams of. It’s an example of a space that people embraced whole heartedly and made their own. Yes, it was still designed in a way that is attractive to protests (large open space, prominent location) but the people really are what made that space the symbol it is today.

Most cities have spaces like the Mall that are prime for protest, from city hall to statehouses. Most of these civic spaces were designed with some amount of open space. When it comes to “generic” protests these are often the places people go. Again, maybe not intentionally designed for such activity, but it happens because ‘that’s just where you go’ to protest.

What’s interesting is looking at places that are not where people traditionally protest, yet due to particular circumstance they become seized public space. After Trump signed his recent immigration order, most people didn’t take to statehouses to voice their opposition. Instead they went to airports. One of the most prominent protest at JFK in New York drew thousands to a space that was designed for parking cars and dropping off passengers. Protesters filled the space. People hung signs along every level of the parking garage, filling it like stands in an arena. Leaders stood on bollards with megaphones to rile the crowd. This space didn’t have the wide open design characteristics of the Mall, but protesters still embraced it all the same.

Similarly, protesters often take to parking lots and sidewalks outside of Planned Parenthood locations to protest abortion practices. These spaces are often suburban, lacking in open space or comforts. However, they are adopted by the protesters to give them a voice. Planters become soapboxes as the crowed becomes a billboard for passing cars advocating their cause.

As we design our cities we rarely to never take into account designing around protests (of course, many would advocate for designing to detract protesters under arguments of safety). We might think about designing around festivals or large events (which translates a bit) but we don’t think about spontaneous take overs of space. Maybe that’s something to think about as we brainstorm ways to use cities as platforms for people to express their voices.