Planning Plazas for Safe Protest

Over seven thousand people marched in Minneapolis on Saturday, June 30, 2018. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

Since the 2016 elections, I have followed the news chronicling the latest demonstrations and protests on a wide range of issues — including immigration, inequality, and women’s rights — and felt inspired by the people who are no longer content with waiting for someone else to make change happen.

At the same time, I am alarmed by the violence and destruction at some events, like when counter-protester Heather Heyer was murdered and 19 others injured during the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last August. As a city planner, I believe we have a responsibility to protect the right to peaceably assemble and encourage civic engagement by designing safe public places for protests and other free-speech demonstrations.

But while planning has the ability to foster productive protests, it can also have the opposite effect. Take for example the historic town square, which once functioned as a central meeting place where residents could gather, debate politics, and hold demonstrations. Many modern American cities have removed those spaces in favor of new development.

Gateway Park in 1920.

Places like Gateway Park in my own city of Minneapolis were essentially reduced to large sidewalks to make way for vehicles, leaving little room for assembly and forcing demonstrators into roads. Other outdated planning principles have become obstacles to safe assembly, too, including disjointed public spaces, physical barriers like large water features or fixed seating that prohibit large crowds, and a lack of adherence to crime prevention through environmental design principles, reducing natural surveillance and lighting.

Instead of turning to planners to help solve this issue, Minnesota and other states are looking to legislation to fine protesters for blocking traffic. This is counterproductive to encouraging an engaged citizen base — and it treats people unequally. Many citizens are frequently without free, unrestricted access to spaces to assemble. Minneapolis, for example, does not have a public space owned by the city to hold demonstrations; property is held by the park board, regional government agencies, or private companies.

Planners must preserve and provide more spaces that can hold large public demonstrations. 

We can look to old and new examples across the U.S. for guidance. In San Francisco, the large Civic Center Plaza has been home to countless demonstrations throughout its long history, from the civil rights movement to the recent March for Our Lives protests. In the Midwest, Cleveland Public Square was redesigned after a $50 million-dollar project coinciding with the 2016 Republican National Convention. It now serves as a hub for political and social activities, including protests against elected leaders.

Creating places to accommodate these activities is not difficult, but it requires intentional design. 

Spaces in high-traffic areas with residential and commercial uses create more eyes on the space, while simple design decisions like retractable bollards can provide flexibility and increase safety. Materials like paving systems can delineate different zones of activity to help organize pedestrian traffic during a protest. Established cities might think they don’t have the space for this, but look at what New York City did in 2009: It reclaimed Times Square from vehicles and gave the space back to pedestrians, and since, it’s been the home of dozens of activist demonstrations.

As planners, we spend so much time trying to figure out why we cannot get residents involved in municipal plans, projects, and politics, but at the same time, we fail to provide space for civic engagement to naturally occur. Planners are uniquely situated to help design these spaces to ensure they are equitable and open to all citizens. It is our job to provide spaces and opportunities for residents to get involved and participate in their cities without fear for their safety or threat of legal repercussions.

About Stephanie Rouse

Stephanie Rouse, AICP, is a planner for the City of Minneapolis and the metro area director of APA's Minnesota Chapter. She is interested in preservation and water management.

6 thoughts on “Planning Plazas for Safe Protest

  1. Bob roscoe

    Ms. Rouse’s posting provides an interesting overview of how our cities accommodate places for large scale public assembly of civic events. In Minneapoplis, Loring Park has been used for public events with limited success, as has the space between City Hall and Hennepin County Government Center and various areas on Nicollet Island. The U of M Mall has adequately served various public assemblies throughout the years. However,the manicured space between the Death Star (US Bank Stadium) and downtown seems designed to thwart civic gatherings.

    In Saint Paul, the Star Capitol grounds made for a noteworthy Women’s March in front of the State Capitol. The environs of Raspberry Island has well served several civic events of national stature.

    Both cities need to examine their responsibilities for serving the democracy of citizens gathering for wider public representation.

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      The recent anti-family-separation protest gathered at the plaza across 2nd Ave from the the Convention Center. Aside from the crowd being big enough that we couldn’t hear the speakers and the bottleneck getting out to actually march, it worked okay.

      High school kids reacting to school gun violence seemed to successfully use the big oval on The Commons for protest. While not a protest, it was also the gathering point for last year’s 30 Days of Biking kick off ride, and worked pretty well for a pretty good size gathering. I can’t remember what, but I recall something gathering in Gold Medal Park.

      We’ve got some spaces but we should be mindful of maintaining them.

    2. Daniel HartigDaniel Hartig

      How is the space near the Death Star (between 5th and 4th St.) ‘designed to thwart civic gathering’? Seems pretty flat and open to me.

      Also, the most famous big, empty squares area all associated with autocracies (Tiananman Square, Red Square, Tahrir Square, etc). Here in the commercially minded US of A, we park in our big squares.

  2. Tom Quinn

    There are plenty of public spaces available for gathering and permits are available to reserve and secure them with police protection, toilets, etc.

    I question the value of adding any more designated places when the key strategy of so many protests is to be disruptive by occupying highways, air ports, and state fair entrances.

    1. Andrew Evans

      Many protests didn’t limit themselves to the public square. We didn’t brexit by sitting in front of town hall singing yankee doodle. Slavery wasn’t abolished by passing out flyers in parks. The civil rights movement wasn’t limited to large events on the National Mall. Not forgetting women’s rights, unions, native protests. In Europe it seems to be the same way, both now and then, and at some point a lot of movements take over the streets and cities.

      Not sure why we don’t have public squares as much anymore. They must have been phased out with the grid system and our lack of roundabouts. Or, they fell out of use in favor of other means to get messages out or hold public forums. We also don’t have the history of popup markets in the same way as European cities, so maybe there is a culture element as well.

      1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

        One reason we got rid of Gateway Park was concerns about homeless or otherwise out of work people spending the day there. That was short-sighted and not a solution to the problem.

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