Roundtable> Beyond Zuccotti Park
Discussion explores the role of urban design and public space in contemporary democracy.
Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park.
Courtesy New Village Press

AN Editor-in-Chief William Menking convened a diverse group of thinkers to discuss the recent book Beyond Zuccotti Park, Freedom of Assembly and the Occupation of Public Spaces, an anthology on the Occupy Movement and the role of urban design and public space in contemporary democracy. Activist and curator Aaron Levy, planner Laura Wolf Powers, and architect Srdjan Jovanovic Weiss participated.

William Menking: To start, we might look at the different themes in the book and discuss, as in any good review, how it succeeds and how it comes up short.

Aaron Levy: I know in your email you had mentioned Michael Rios’ essay, “Emplacing Democratic Design,” and his conclusion, do we want to just begin there?

Laura Wolf Powers: I was struck with Rios’ readiness to question the motives of his own profession. There is a pervasive idea in critical theory that people in the professions of urbanism—planning, urban design, architecture—are a malign force, acting in the interest of the powerful, complicit in this system whose main goal is to create real estate wealth. That’s of interest to me as somebody who teaches city planners. I don’t see myself in that way. I don’t see the profession as being that way. I understand why people have that criticism, but I persist in believing that these professions can also be a force for change and for good.

AL: I found Rios’ self-reflective disposition enabling and productive. I thought he was trying to encourage us to be attentive to how spaces are socially produced and the way that their production serves particular interests.

Srdjan Jovanovic Weiss: Perhaps it is impossible to make the cause-effect connection between urban design and public dissent. However, there is a looming sense of remorse that even as everything was well meant and well managed by Occupy Wall Street, it was evicted, while the urban design of Zuccotti Park survives as a working standard. As if the two were in opposition to begin with.

We can ask this irreverent question that is raised by Beyond Zuccotti Park: when will those designs finally be truly taken as seamless open territories even though they are privately owned? This book’s premise is slightly evasive in the way it calls out dissent by the name of the space where it happened. However, it does plenty to form its most crucial point, that the centers of cities are still the places for cultural dissent.

LWP: Rios had some compelling ideas about place making as an act of democratic action and dissent. He saw Occupy as an instance of that. But I think what you are both saying is that this theme of transforming spaces of social control into spaces of democratic expression hasn’t had as big of a role as one might have expected in various accounts of the Occupy protests. Similarly, design has not been particularly central to the ongoing conversation about the future of the movement or the future of political activism. I think that is what this book is trying to remedy.

SJW: It is interesting, as a sign of the times, that we don’t have a conclusion on that issue. To prevent dissent as a form of delinquency is probably one of the largest headaches of the authorities. Everyone is faced with a conundrum between goodness and self-sabotage. How does one approach the discussion of the paradox of dissent and at the same time talk about implementation and its enabling forces in urban design?

LWP: A few of the essays, including the one by Gregory Smithsimon, mentioned that it’s a supreme irony that Zuccotti Park was a viable place for this to happen precisely because it wasn’t a public park. Ordinary public spaces in New York have use restrictions. The city was not able to repress Occupy as quickly because it was held in a privately owned public place with fewer rules than a park.

Saskia Sassen’s and Julian Brash’s essays made interesting points about how rather than being able to engage in dialogue with public officials about the big political issues that motivated them—economic inequality, unemployment, the foreclosure crisis—the protestors ended up being forced to negotiate very small incremental things about noise and generators and sanitation. Sanitation was this outsized issue that Brash claims had enormous symbolic importance, and I think he is right. In the midst of all the arguing about cleanliness, the protestors and the wider public got distracted from the bigger picture demands.

SJW: A part of a chapter in the book contributed by Laurie Olin is quite moving in presenting an expectation that citizens should use a park as “it was intended.” It graciously mentions the failure of designing a place for protesting at Independence Mall in Philadelphia, and contains a phenomenal statement: “It is in the nature of protest to be contrary.” It reads as a challenge to how to educate anyone to battle with the design of prescribed civic spaces.

AL: Laurie Olin remarks that legitimate protests make many people uncomfortable. He goes on to say that designers produce a number of anti-terrorists barriers for federal institutional facilities that are then used in the public realm. I found his comments extraordinarily naive and troubling.

LWP: Well, there is a critical discourse that hovers above the practical discourse. I think that in architecture schools all over you have people who are very socially perceptive and penetrating in terms of understanding the social realm, how political space, psychological space, and physical space are all intertwined. Their critique is spot on. But then, at the end of the day, it is a fact that we live under capitalism. Within that, both the government and the private sector are pretty circumscribed. So you have the critics and then you have people who are actually teaching the design skills and the real estate development skills, and they may not have as much time for critique.

Look at the Bloomberg Administration. It has done some really interesting things in the public realm, but they are not radical things. With all the work that’s gone into enhancing public space over the last 12 years, it’s concentrated mostly in affluent neighborhoods, or in high-end commercial areas. Certain communities’ are not addressed by this supposedly highly progressive public space agenda. I think that the marketization of space has been a big part of that. When I walk on the High Line it’s an absolutely fantastic place to be, but I look around and I just see all these people who are of a certain stratum. The people who feel most welcome in that space are those who can participate in the consumption of amenities all around it.

WM: If you are thin and well dressed and handsome, you are on the High Line. If you are fat and not fashionable, you get to go to Times Square.

AL: I think some of the strongest contributions were in chapter two, where social justice and questions of class and race are foregrounded in relation to Occupy, something that maybe Occupy wasn’t successful enough at negotiating. I’m not really that taken by the focus on space and place making. It seemed to be at the heart of this volume as the only way to work.

WM: Well, it seems like Zuccotti Park itself had nothing to do with occupying. The reason why they used it is because of its relationship with Wall Street, the World Trade Center, and corporate America. It had nothing to do with design at all.

SJW: I think that links well to Saskia Sassen’s point about remaking the territoriality of places that do not fall in either national nor natural property, which Occupy did to a previously unknown park on Wall Street.

AL: Today, everybody from funders to designers is obsessed with place making. It seems it’s actually not that interesting of a conversation outside of sectors in which it’s taken for granted that place is where we should begin every conversation. It seems to me that social relationships can be enabled and much work can be done, but we don’t always have to begin with this focus on the built environment.

SJW: Perhaps that goes in line with exploring spatial strategies that we may think are immanent even before the conversations start. We seem to trust that the process of place making should not be taken away from people that are going to use it. There I think we are wrong. How does one really know who is going to use any of these places without considering that some exceptional use of them will eventually occur?

LWP: People are going to use space. Sometimes they’re going to use it for the purpose for which it was designed and sometimes they aren’t. To have spaces designed and designated for democratic activity is actually counterproductive, because the point of dissent is that it is transgressive. It reminds me of when a city government decides to build a skateboarding park, usually because of consternation with skateboarders using various types of public spaces in ways that makes the government uncomfortable, or worried about lawsuits or whatever. So because they are upset about the status quo use of space by skateboarders they create this beautiful capital-intensive official skateboarding park and then nobody goes there! Why? Because the whole point of it for the skateboarders is to engage in something that’s not sanctioned by mainstream society. How can they do that in a place that was designed expressly for them?

WM: I was interested in how the book foregrounded place and space but didn’t foreground the use of media. It didn’t foreground technology or surveillance as it was employed, but also technology as it was manipulated to enable a national movement to emerge. I think what is really important and special about Occupy is these extraordinary networks of affinity. The book has many diagrams and many site plans in Zuccotti, and they are all beautiful. What I didn’t see was the architecture of relationships that enabled Occupy. I think that’s what we really should be taking about when we talk about the design of these kinds of movements and mobilizations.

LWP: I think that it can be really useful to talk about space as long as you don’t let it become the only thing in the conversation. There was one contribution by Mike Pyatok that offered a critique of conventional public spaces. Pyatok argued that public spaces are often designed to set off important buildings. The purpose of the plaza or the square or the park is to show off and glorify the edifice next to it. I thought it was interesting to think of Zuccotti Park and the U.S. Steel building in this way. The park in some ways became an emblem of what it took to make that building, since the reason the building could be so tall was that the park was provided, and the park showed off and glorified the building. What OWS did was to undermine that relationship in some way. Suddenly the building was less important and the park, which only existed because of the height of the building, was more important.