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.
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 Other outdated planning principles have become obstacles to safe assembly, too, including disjointed public spaces, physical barriers like large water features or fixed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.