19 August 2004

Urban planning and political protest

Ruben Bolling's comic Tom the Dancing Bug has a chilly satire of “free speech zones,” Salon has an article about lefties concerned about potential backlash from protests against the Republican convention in New York, and Atrios has a little meditation on the same subject:

There is the question of whether street protest is really worth the time money and energy of those involved. It's a bit different in other countries, where public spaces are much more integrated with daily life, and protests can be much more visible and effective. But, in the US even when protest are allowed to operate on prime real estate, the fact that public spaces are for the most part already on the edges of daily life, protests and protesters are intrinsically marginalized, even when they aren't happening behind razowire in pens.
Given that protesting in this country almost by its nature marginalizes an issue by portraying it as something which is out of the mainstream, one has to ask whether the costs are greater than the benefits.

This is yet another example of the impoverishment of American civic life through lame urban design.

It's particularly vivid for me, as an alumnus of UC Santa Cruz. The university's first chancellor, Dean McHenry, wanted to pattern the campus after Oxford's residential colleges. According to campus legend, he was able to win support for this because of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement. The residential college plan meant no central gathering place on campus comparable to Sproul Plaza at UC Berkeley.

The legend probably isn't true, but the effect was real. UCSC had an extremely vigorous lefty student culture in my time there, but campus protests were hard to sustain. The best option for holding a protest was at the administration offices at the library — but there wasn't room for a crowd of more than four or five dozen people, and the library was located such that if you weren't on your way there specfically, you wouldn't ever pass by it. The only place with room for more people was the quarry, which was deserted if it wasn't graduation day. Between that, the distance between the campus and the town, the local climate's tendancy toward rain, and the rapid academic tempo of the quarter system, the frequent student protests never really gathered any steam.

Architecture is politics.


Anonymous said...

At Carolina, Greenlaw Hall (the English building where I spent many an hour), was built sometime in the 1960's. The windows are all these little unopenable slits, and most of the desks are those inseperable desk/chair combos. They are all bolted to the floor. It is widely regarded as the ugliest building on campus. This is because it was built to be riot-proof. English majors are nothing but trouble.

Anonymous said...

At DNC 2000, we joked about our "protest zoo."

Wonder what Ruskin would have to say about this...

- yezida

Jonathan Korman said...

Late update!

"Tahrir Square got its name by a presidential decree in 1955. It was supposed to be a sign of Egypt's liberation from the British--who actually left in the 20s--and also from the monarchy of King Farouk. Actually in Tarhrir Square there is a large pedestal that was put in place in the time of King Farouk that was supposed to have a statue of him on top. But it never got built and power changed hands so President Nasser decided to keep the pedestal with nothing on it as a reminder of the failure of the Egyptian monarchy. But honestly it's not really clear to me what liberation the presidential decree was recognizing. In my opinion Tahrir Square didn't earn it's name until January 25th, 2011."

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