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

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, an historical house 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 decorators, sure, but not just that. These are where people gathering naturally, to socialize and, in a politicized period, to protest. And those two functions make public space the key to the economic and social health of cities.

Urban planners have long known whats up. In the late 1970 s, the sociologist William H. Whyte famously creeped on public plazas in New York City to determine which ones promoted community and activity and which didnt. Last month, just before the Womens March descended on New York’s 5 th Avenue, 13 design, architecture, and civics experts wrotean open letter to New York Mayor Bill De Blasiorecommending ways to return New York City’s land to its citizens. They pitched increasing the size and number oflocal parks and plazas, improving access to thesegathering places, and pedestrianizing major thoroughfares in midtown Manhattan.

In other terms: Devote people more beautiful, functional spaceto do with as they please–whether those activities involve posterboard and bullhorns or merely sunbathing with friends .” Public spaces should basically allow for expres ,” says Shin-pei Tsay, a signatory to the De Blasio letter and head of the Gehl Institute, an urban the investigations and advocacy organization.

A Good Space

These places of respite can even be good for your health.Research out of Swedenfinds urban-dwellers who reported visiting parks more often are also less likely to report stress-related illness. A Canadian studyfindsexposure to trees correlates with test subjects’health perception–that is, feeling good–in the same style that more making money or aging Benjamin Button-style might. Just one walk through a natural set, according to a 2008 journal article, positively affects analyze participants feelings, 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 only a few trees or benches plunked into the middle of a concrete expanse.The values of public spaces are very site specific, says designer Justin Garrett Moore, who directsNew York Citys Public Design Commission. The best planners, he says, consider not only a space’s geography, but its culture and emotional context. Moore points toHunters Point South, along the East River in Queens, New York, as a public place thats gotten it right: Its where children from the high school across the street can hang, but also hosts community-specific programming( aclub music-tinted fall DJ set, anyone ?), a big Astro-turf lawn for pick-up games, cycling tracks, and a space for movies and free yoga and meditation classes.

The ideal space for a protest is big, has good visibility, has places where people can sit, and is approachable from all directions.Claire Weisz, principal, XYZ Architects

Hunter’s Point South also hosted a Bernie Sanders rally last year, and that’s no accident. Lovely parksare 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 info through bodily cues.This is why the Washington Mall, or thenewly redesigned public square in Cleveland, Ohio, are so superstar: They dedicate demonstrators and loiterers alike the sight lines to make them feel safe( no riot policeman concealed behind a bend) and equal( everyone can see everybody else ).

The ideal space is just one you can approach from all directions, Weisz says, permitting more and morepun-loversto join without penning( or pinning) anyone in. Panic is the adversary 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 employing thick kerbs and bollards in New York Citys famed Times Square made the space safer for walkers, but also for the businesses around them: A bomb-laden truck has a much harder period getting near a Broadway theater when roadblocks block the way.

Busy, office-lined throughways can also impose aspatial logic on protests. I suppose one of the beautiful things about the Womens Marches in New York City and Los Angeles is, we were taking over intersections, says Tsay. A marching that becomes too big for a sidewalk mightspill into one lane of traffic, then two. Median, pavement markings, and curbs are infrastructural elements thatprovide 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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