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Recent Protests in Public Space: It's All About Equity

public protest space

Thousands of protestors march in the streets of New York City | Image via PPS Instagram, regram via @Helenshirley


All of these have topped the Twitter trending charts in recent days, and for good reason.

The reactions in the last two weeks over the grand jury decisions on the deaths of Eric Garner in New York City and Michael Brown in Ferguson have started both online campaigns and important conversations about equity under the law. But it also brought people outside in ongoing protests to express outrage against these rulings – at times, shutting down streets and entire highways in the process.

In times like this, public spaces also become a topic of discussion, if only inadvertently. Public spaces have long been the place to air grievances against the state, along with providing a place to read a book, shop local vendors, or experience nature (and so on). Whenever protesters take to the streets – also important public spaces – they make their voices heard through peaceful disruption of everyday activities (i.e. traffic).

Inevitably, the conversation turns to whose rights are more important – those of the average citizens who don't want to take part, or those democratically expressing their opinions in public spaces. It happened during the Occupy era when protesters decided to remain in parks and plazas nationwide thereby preventing non-participants from taking part in their otherwise regular activities in those spaces.

The fact of the matter is that streets, plazas, and parks as public spaces should provide places for all of the above activities and be flexible enough to accommodate the public's needs as they arise (inconvenient or otherwise). The reason why people still "take to the streets" is because it is so visible. While on Twitter one can ignore the outrage or combat it anonymously, it's another thing to face your fellow citizens in your neighborhoods and physically feel what they're going through during a march.

Otherwise, public spaces are not truly public.

In cities, it's all connected. The way we think about other people, especially in urban areas, is impacted by our exposure to people that are different than us. We know the benefits of being exposed to this kind of diversity, which is exactly what public spaces are all about. Where New York City for instance is segregated by income, its parks are not. They provide the crucial link between lifestyle, ethnic background, or age, by giving people the space to come together – whether during a casual everyday interaction, or during a disruptive political protest. By challenging ourselves with a diversity of people and opinions, we are participating as citizens of our communities and are made better by it.

In effect, public spaces make us better human beings.

So meet your friends for coffee in the park and take your toddler to the playground, and when the time comes to march with your fellow citizens in the streets or stage a die-in at the train station – go for it. It's your public right to do so.

This blog was originally published as a Placemaking News Roundup on Project for Public Spaces' Placemaking Blog.