February 15, 2012
by Benedict Clouette

Zuccotti Park in October, 2011

Wendi Anabell Photo / Creative Commons

Event: Freedom of Assembly: Public Space Today Redux
Rick Bell, FAIA, Executive Director, AIANY (introduction); Lance Jay Brown, FAIA, ACSA, Distinguished Professor in the Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture at The City College of New York (moderator); Thomas Balsley, FASLA, Principal, Thomas Balsley Associates; Marshall Berman, Distinguished Professor, Political Science, Division of Social Science, The City College of New York; Paul Broches, FAIA, Partner, Mitchell/Giurgola Architects; Susan Chin, FAIA, Executive Director, Design Trust for Public Space; Jeffrey Hou, Associate Professor, Chair, Landscape Architecture, University of Washington; Jerold Kayden, Frank Backus Williams Professor of Urban Planning and Design, GSD; Jonathan Marvel, FAIA, Rogers Marvel Architects; Paula Z. Segal, law graduate, #whOWNSpace collaborator, founder of 596acres.org; Ron Shiffman, FAICP, Professor, Pratt Graduate Center for Planning and the Environment (closing remarks); Lynne Elizabeth, Director, New Village Press (closing remarks)
Center for Architecture, City College of New York School of Architecture, and Pratt Graduate Center for Planning and the Environment.
Center for Architecture, 02.04.12

From the Arab Spring to the Spanish indignados and the Greek anti-austerity protests, the past year saw a number of social movements take to the streets (and plazas, parks, and squares). Closer to home, Occupy Wall Street tested the limits of the right to freely and peacefully assemble, and launched Zuccotti Park to the forefront of a debate, in New York and around the world, on the importance of public spaces in the political life of cities.

Prompted by the protests, a recent discussion hosted by the Center posed a series of questions: Where is public space in New York today? What is public space, and what makes it feel public? Can it be designed, or only enacted? How do laws and regulations expand or limit “public-ness,” and how can citizens use these laws to exercise their rights? Continuing the conversation from an earlier panel at the Center, the event brought together architects, landscape architects, political philosophers, and activists to discuss public space and the role of design in democratic society.

Thomas Balsley, FASLA, landscape architect of many New York POPSs (Privately-Owned Public Spaces), asked why New York, unlike most great cities, has no civic arena where large numbers of people can congregate for protest and public discussion, and called on designers to “wade into the morass” of complex stakeholder interests and political intrigues in order to ensure the success of urban public spaces.

The messiness of public spaces, and the conflicts and politics surrounding them, was a theme taken up by several of the speakers. Political philosopher Marshall Berman spoke about the “sloppiness” of the Athenian agora—the cacophony of its street vendors, poets, politicians, and musicians—and how its disorder was perhaps democratic, in that it allowed for a greater freedom of expression, and more vital encounters, than the orderly, planned civic spaces of other Greek cities. Berman noted that the qualities of the Athenian agora happened by accident rather than being designed.

Similarly, several speakers pointed to the difference between public spaces that are officially sanctioned and designed and those that are created by collective actions, such as the occupation of Zuccotti Park. Jeffrey Hou made the distinction between “institutional” public spaces—those that are officially recognized and legally protected—and “insurgent” public spaces created by groups of ordinary citizens appropriating a site, often without the permission of the authorities. Jerold Kayden suggested there was an inherent contradiction in designing spaces for political protest, in that to designate an area for political demonstrations absorbs the subversive act of protest. “One could even make the argument that the more a space is designed to repel public use, the better the opportunity for protest at that space,” Kayden suggested.

Indeed, one of the virtues of the Occupy movement has been to target sites that, in the act of occupation, reveal the ironies of contemporary public space. Zuccotti Park, a POPS owned by Brookfield Properties, became (for some) a symbol of the erosion of a truly public domain through public-private partnerships and real estate interests. In that sense, its choice as a site of protest could not have been better. At the same time, its legal status as a POPS enabled a form of protest that a publicly-owned park would not, thanks to zoning laws that require POPSs to remain open 24 hours a day, despite being private property. The ambiguous “public-ness” of Zuccotti demonstrated an axiom of public space: like the agora, public space exists where people enact it, where they create a public sphere. Public space can be designed, but it must also happen, and when it does, it’s often messy.

Benedict Clouette is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in Domus, Volume Magazine, and DAMn. He is the incoming editor of e-Oculus.