Rewriting the Rulebook

Cairo’s Tahrir Square almost one year ago. International debate over the rules of engagement in public space should be one of our most important public conversations in 2012.

Early in the morning of January 1, a phalanx of would-be Occupiers stormed the (police) barricades at New York’s now-famous “publicly-owned private space,” Zucotti Park. Almost seventy people were arrested, the “park” cleared, and some semblance of the present order restored. The next evening in Budapest, protesters massed outside of the State Opera, angered by a new crypto-fascist constitution and a crackdown on public dissent near the Hungarian Parliament.

2011 will go down in history as a year of public protests in public space, from Cairo’s Tahrir Square to Madrid’s Puerta del Sol, from Wall Street and the City of London, to back alleys and village roadways in China’s inner provinces. If the early indicators chronicled above are anything to go by, 2012 will be no different. The New Year should provide plenty of opportunity for the unelected governments of Greece and Italy to show us just what decent technocrats think public space is for, while the right-wingers now running the rest of Europe (with a few notable exceptions) continue to confront public anger against government austerity; to say nothing of continued unrest in Asia and the Middle East.

In the US, a new dialogue is growing around the question what constitutes an “appropriate use” of public space (despite Mitt Romney’s request that we keep our conflicts locked up in “quiet rooms”). A tribute to the robustness of American democracy, even at the extremes, is that questions of protest tend to focus on the “rules of engagement” in public spaces. With the exception of our own cryptofascist right, most Americans take either a strong or weak version of Freedom of Expression pretty seriously.

So what, then, are the “rules of engagement” in public spaces? Or, more to the point, what should the rules be? At the moment, a definitive answer to this question doesn’t exist. The rules are in flux. Deciding what’s included in the new, post-Occupy rulebook for public spaces isn’t simply an important issue for us to settle as citizens; as planners, urban designers, landscape architects, and landscape urbanists, we’ve got the most at stake in this arena, and we should be looking to shape the conversation as it evolves.

First, it’s important to acknowledge that however much support the Occupy movement is able to galvanize, we’re not about to enter an era of unfettered expression in public spaces. Real and reasonable constraints on the use of public space exist and need to exist. Recreational users have as much of a right to public space as anybody else and public safety is rather important. Other issues more closely related to the political economy of public space are also an issue. Somebody has to pay for creating it and somebody has to pay for maintaining it. Neither is cheap and most plans and designs for public spaces come from actors with entrenched interests in maintaining the status quo: governments of various shapes and sizes, private-sector firms, and groups such as BIDs that straddle the two categories. Indeed, with municipal budgets stretched to their breaking points, private sector actors are likely to play a larger and larger role in sharing the costs of creating urban public spaces, as cities look for innovative ways to finance such development (readers interested in innovative park finance should check this out, by the way). Non-profit and cooperative public space development is nice to think about, but the realities of financing and operating such spaces mean that the public and private sectors can put considerable constraints on the “rules of engagement.”

Given these constraints then, the planning and design community needs to fight for the best “rules of engagement” we can get and now is the time to do so. While the rules of social interaction are constantly revised, only in moments of systemic crisis can the whole rulebook be thrown out and rewritten. What’s more, thanks to the well-documented wonders of the internet, we can watch this process as it happens and contribute to it ourselves. I happen to think pepper spraying nonviolent demonstrators is wrong; UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi disagrees. We’re both on the record, online, as saying so. The same goes for commenter E-J (in response to an earlier post) and my disagreement on whether not America can be described as a “police state,” as well as millions of other large and small points of contention.

The rules governing public space have been rewritten time and again throughout history. The Haymarket Martyrs were Occupiers before Occupation was cool and helped galvanize worldwide support for labor rights.

Nobel Laureate and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has commented frequently that the emergence of an online “econosphere” has wrought incredible changes in the way economic debate takes place. Differences can be hashed out (or not…) online and in real time, rather than over a period of months or even years in the pages of fairly inaccessible academic publications. The same could be said of the planning and design community; indeed, that’s one of the big reasons I’m writing here at the Landscape Urbanism blog: to make sure that what I have to say is apart of an online dialogue about the future of the city and the public and private spaces within it. The emerging debate about “rules of engagement” in public spaces offers a fantastic opportunity to get this dialogue going full-steam, outside of outlets reserved for more-established practitioners and theorists. And it’s a great opportunity for new, young planners and designers to shape the environment in which we’ll work—for the rest of our careers—and shouldn’t be wasted.

There will always be actors who choose to operate outside of the “rules of engagement” in public spaces. I spent Christmas in Chicago where a visit to the Haymarket Memorial reminded me that, sometimes, playing nice isn’t the best or quickest route to social progress. In the coming year, planners and designers from all disciplines should contribute to this conversation to ensure that real, decent, and lasting change is achieved within the bounds of both the written and unwritten laws that govern behavior in and around public space. We’re going to have to live with this rulebook, so we might as well write a few of its chapters.

 

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