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Once largely viewed as a fringe activity belonging to passionate extremists, protest is now—in the wake of a controversial new administration’s ascension to power in the US and a heightened interest in politics globally—a commonplace occurrence, with a much broader participant base in need of places to gather and move en masse. This revitalized interest in protest was perhaps most visible on one particularly historic occasion: on January 21st, 2017, a record-breaking 4.2 million people took to the streets across the US to exercise their first-amendment rights.
Women’s marches took place on the frozen tundra (we have photographic evidence from a scientist in the Arctic Circle) and even in a Los Angeles cancer ward. But for the most part, these protests happened in the streets. In the first few months of 2017, the streets of our cities suddenly took center stage on screens across the world. From Washington to Seattle, Sydney to San Antonio, Paris to Fairbanks, broad boulevards and small town main streets were transformed from spaces for movement to places of resistance. From the Women’s March on Washington to April’s People’s Climate March, protestors are looking for space to convene and advocate for the issues that matter most to them.
In a thriving democracy, the need for protest shapes our public realm and vice versa. The design of our public realm informs the way we collectively bear witness to conflict and make our voices heard. The design of our streets, in particular, needs to accommodate a huge range of uses—from the activities of our most pedestrian of days to the influx of millions during extraordinary times. Many designers are asking these questions of each other, reiterating the potential impact design can have on our collective experience of public space during protest events. Just last month, Van Alen Institute held a flash competition inviting designers to come up with new ideas for improving the protest experience in New York City, yielding creative ideas like the use of enormous balloons to signal where protests are happening around the city.
Interested in these notions, we reached out to a number of designers (landscape architects, urban designers and planners) who participated in one of the many nation-wide marches on January 21, and asked them about their experience. This included designers that marched in Austin, Boston, Oakland, Houston, Washington DC, New York City, Denver, and Chicago. We asked:
How did the design of the street enable or hinder the experience of the march?
What was surprising about the way the street or public spaces performed during the marches?
Did your experience change the way you think about the design of city streets?
What follows are the recurring themes from their observations and speculative design provocations for each.
The There There
There is meaning in place. That is to say, each march was intentionally planned to start or conclude in a specific, culturally significant physical setting. Usually, this involved an iconic piece of architecture or monument associated with government—Los Angeles’ City Hall or Austin’s State House, for instance. One DC marcher noted the powerful moment when the White House Lawn was opened to protesters. At the same time, participants at other marches noted the lack of this focus. For instance, Chicago’s Grant Park and Boston’s Commons became the epicenter in those cities, but lacked a specific point of arrival or were overwhelmed by crowds in a way that made the focus inaccessible. While seemingly obvious, this tells us that citizens see certain spaces as the place to talk to their leaders, where their voices are somehow more likely to be heard.
Design Provocation: What if we expanded the “There There” to be less singular (ie not just “at the monument” but “toward the monument”) and more intentionally designed for a procession? This could mean an orchestrated “parade route” replete with strategic plaza spaces—a gathering/launching place, a resting place or two and a finale space—and lined with supporting infrastructure (totems, banners, lighting). This would lengthen and enhance the experience for both marchers and those watching.
Mine, Yours, and Ours
Nearly every person, when asked to reflect on their experience, shared some intensely personal or profound moment. One woman recounted a chant for Sandra Bland on the streets of Austin and feeling overwhelmed by the way the sound carried to the sky. A man saw a woman in tears on a corner and had a moment of deep and unexpected empathy. Another person recounted hearing a young boy asking his mother questions about democracy, demonstrating wisdom well beyond his years. For many, the march was as personal as it was collective. For designers, this is a very interesting challenge—both for days of protest and for everyday use of our streets. How can we both enable a grand, civic, and flexible street while also allowing for the smaller, personal interactions? How can our great civic streets be both awe-inspiring, respectful of their role as foreground, while also being great places to hang out?
Design Provocation: What if we enhanced the sense of everyday social interaction in ways both flexible and temporary? For instance—much like the famed Parking Day—underutilized spaces could become temporary gardens, dining terraces, recreational nooks and sitting spaces as needed. These could be easily disassembled or made denser on march days.
Safety in Numbers
Safety was at the forefront of many protesters’ minds. Many discussed the challenges of the unexpectedly large crowds. There were moments of concern for personal safety: Will I be able to get out of this situation easily? What if it were hotter? What if I had a medical emergency? There were also concerns for crowd safety. One official in Austin noted a terrifying and fleeting thought: What if the protest becomes a target for some form of attack? Will we be able to protect all of these people? Others observed the historic design intent of these streets: Was this street designed to embrace protest or squash it? Was it made more for protecting the government or for creating a place for its people?
Design Provocation: What if we integrated new technology to better visualize, connect and communicate on city streets? Imagine building facades becoming real-time screens for sharing information—tweets, emergency information, or instructions.
The Devil is in the Details
While masterplans may be laid out on tolerances of feet, streets are experienced in inches. Many observed the micro-scaled dimensions as critical. Disposition and heights of curbs—hardly noticeable topography on an average day—suddenly had a notable influence on crowd movements. Cross slopes that might feel negligible to a car in motion proved stressful over time to slow-moving human bodies. Participants pointed to medians, material changes, and even potholes as surprisingly disruptive. Perhaps most importantly, many talked about these micro-topographies and shifts as significant challenges for the less able-bodied, the wheelchair-bound, or those with strollers. The location of curb ramps alternately became welcomed moments of progress and unexpected bottlenecks.
Design Provocation: What if our streets were designed with universal accessibility in mind? We could eliminate the seemingly small but significant barrier of the curb in favor of a much freer and open platform. Temporary furnishings or site elements could instead serve barrier and crowd control needs and virtually disappear during large gatherings.
A Matter of Proportion
While micro-conditions were noted frequently, more often than not, participants also used words like “grand” to describe the experience of the major march routes. Marchers expressed both gratitude (for civic leadership allowing for these kinds of assemblies to happen) and surprise (noting a kind of renewed awareness of the need for such spaces). More granularly, much discussion focused on the specific dimensions and proportions of the street itself. What is the ideal relationship between widths of sidewalks and street dimensions? Why is so much of the street given over to cars? In a 21st century city, what percentage of the street should “belong” to the bicycle, the pedestrian, the car, or transit?
Design Provocation: What if our streets were not uniform from block to block, but instead richly diverse and changing places? Imagine a street where the travel lanes for cars, pedestrian spaces, and planted spaces were intermixed and interlaced. In a future with self-driving cars, a direct open route may no longer need to be our public priority!
Many respondents noted the value of elevation—both in terms of the ability for marchers to elevate themselves and for larger city-scaled elevation changes. Where marchers in Austin appreciated Congress Avenue’s impressive topographic change (allowing an awesome and immediate scan of the crowd), participants in Houston lamented the relative flatness of the downtown streets (which minimized the ability to read the same). Protesters in Chicago celebrated simple street furniture, stairs, and sturdy trees—all of which provided places for rest, but also mechanisms for climbing to get a better view or take a place of prominence to lead a chant. Many noted the energy and excitement offered by upper-level terraces or balconies on buildings along the march routes, allowing a more three-dimensional and immersive participation and experience.
Design Provocation: What if the experience of the street became more three-dimensional? Imagine tree houses, elevated catwalks, outdoor terraces, and public bridges—places to perch above and witness the life of the street. At the ground level, tiered seating elements and furnishings could enable more spectator space.
The Art of the Long View
In places like Washington DC, Chicago and Austin, a series of very intentional relationships between building and open space drove the disposition of the city streets. Civic buildings and monuments of physical and symbolic prominence occupy high points or conclude long vistas. These relationships were noted in many different ways by march participants, but most frequently in a cinematographic way. Marchers used expressions like “turning a corner,” “seeing anew,” and “a dramatic vista.” Beyond pure orientation—which was certainly useful in such large gatherings—these landmarks contributed to the human experience of the marches, buttressing for many a sense of purpose and pride of place. Marchers even noted far less monumental architecture along the route as well—buildings that offered visual interest, engaging ground floor uses, or various forms of integrated shelter (awnings, porticos, etc). These observations reinforce the importance of land use planning and design in creating buildings that reinforce civic identity.
Design Provocation: What if our streets were designed as a visual feast, with a focus on the pedestrian as the dominant spectator? Imagine a street where one would promenade down the center, rather than the edges, and where lighting, paving and planting systems were designed to be provocative artful installations rather than purely functional elements.
As already noted, marches took place across the world in a wide range of climates—from the snowy sidewalks of Fairbanks, Alaska to the sunny streets of Rio de Janeiro. Nearly everyone we spoke to, regardless of the weather they experienced personally, noted the need for greater consideration of human comfort in the design of our streets. Marchers often struggled with a lack of a wide range of amenities—from drinking fountains, to public restrooms, and seating. Some noted the challenges associated with microclimate, observing strong differences between well-landscaped and treed spaces versus broad expanses of paving. Others described the splendor of unintentional amenities—like staircases intended for building entry becoming a place for sitting and viewing or planters serving as crowd control elements.
Design Provocation: What if we reimagined streets as having ceilings—perhaps covered by temporary or visually porous canopies? These systems could help shade and cool the street while also becoming a canvas of sorts for projections and art. At the human scale, pavilions and small pieces of architecture located strategically along the street could offer other kinds of comforts—shade, restrooms, information, or concessions.
In an era that seems poised to embrace new models of urban mobility—whether through the ever-promised driverless cars or a profound revolution in public transportation—the common space of our streets may soon be available for dramatic re-thinking. These provocations hopefully provide inspiration. In the meantime, it seems certain we will continue to see civic activity and protest in our streets. And as we prepare for these future events, we can consider January 21, 2017 positive proof that well-designed, multi-functional city streets are central to a thriving democracy.
Gina Ford is a principal and landscape architect in Sasaki‘s Urban Studio. The Urban Studio is an energized and interdisciplinary group of practitioners solely dedicated to the improvement of quality of life in cities through rigorous planning, exceptional design, and strong community partnerships. Gina’s work encompasses a wide range of scales and project types, from public parks and plazas to large-scale landscape planning and waterfront projects. She brings to each project a passion for the process of making vibrant landscape spaces—from the conceptual design to the details of implementation—with a particular focus on the life and use of urban, public environments. Martin Zogran is a principal and urban designer in Sasaki‘s Urban Studio. With over 20 years of experience designing urban centers across the globe, Martin’s experience with mixed-use districts and large-scale framework plans spans many scales, from small urban infill sites to large scale regional plans. He searches for creative methods to combine economic goals, regulatory requirements, and ecological systems thinking into exciting and innovative places that foster long-term value.
At Sasaki, Martin leads much of the big-picture thinking for the urban design practice in order to foster and maintain Sasaki’s unique multi-disciplinary approach to urban design. He leads in-house think-tank sessions on current planning and urban design topics and promotes building professional development and skills for the wide array of urban design practices within the firm.