As I stepped down the stairs off Liberty Street in downtown Manhattan a couple weeks ago, I could not help but notice the very modest and unimpressive nature of the relatively small space known as Zuccotti Park. Its trees were not particularly beautiful, it was not extraordinarily large or awesome, and it was infested with New York City’s trademark pigeons, just like any other city park. It was hard to imagine that this very space was once filled with passionate citizens calling for a seemingly revolutionary change in the current world of increasing privatization and decreasing levels of civic engagement and public discourse.
But of course, in the fall of 2011, hundreds of New Yorkers gathered in this rather unexceptional park to call attention to the inequities of our generation and to finally make their voices heard. While the lasting effects of the Occupy movement on governmental policy are debatable, the movement certainly accomplished one thing: it brought the issue of public space and participation in the American democratic society to the forefront and sparked a discourse that is now proving to be vital in legislative as well as social policy.
New Village Press, a publishing project led by non-profit educational organization Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility, brings together designers, architects, activists, citizens and social scientists to discuss this very issue in its recent collection of essays, Beyond Zuccotti Park. It indeed goes “beyond” Zuccotti Park in examining the impact of public spaces on a democracy like that of the United States, and also on other forms of government around the world, including those of Great Britain, Egypt, and Iran. The authors seek to explore how these very ordinary places foster extraordinary change, as well as how the design and use of these spaces impact public participation in civic society. Moreover, they examine the constant struggles and negotiations between developers of public spaces and the citizens who use them.
Dedicated to “our grandkids, their friends, and their generation”, the collection of works truly takes a visionary approach by offering solutions and recommendations to the problem of decreasing public engagement for current and future generations. Anyone who wishes to spark change and engage ordinary citizens in a discourse that is rightfully theirs will be inspired by this book.
Beyond Zuccotti Park was a particularly fascinating read because of its multitude of perspectives. Authors range from activists who actually participated in the protests at Occupy Wall Street to those who witnessed change in other countries like Iran, and finally to leaders of organizations that help shape public spaces in New York City. They use references from other movements in other places; for example, professor and doctor Mindy Fullilove of Columbia University gives a fascinating account of Occupy Pittsburgh and the humble origins of Freedom Corner, and Iranians Sadra Shahab (urban planner and civil rights activist) and Shirin Barghi (journalist) offer an insightful comparison between the consequences of public protests in Iran and the United States.
Moreover, the publishers thoughtfully recognize that civic engagement is not only the responsibility of occupiers and protesters. For instance, authors like Janette Sadik-Khan, commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation, discuss how the government has also played a large role in making cities more accessible and welcome to the public. It would have been interesting, however, if readers were offered insight from, perhaps, a policeman or someone who helped regulate the protesters at Zuccotti Park. Civil rights attorney Maya Wiley interestingly points out that the police are also the “99%”, despite the fact that they were viewed by occupiers as enemies. Nevertheless, with such a multilateral approach, the book certainly accomplishes its goal of “unleashing” an important discourse about the significance of public spaces and the freedom of assembly in a well-functioning democracy.
Beyond Zuccotti Park creates as many questions as it answers – questions that are sure to be at the crux of heated discussions and protests all over the world in the coming years. Can people be considered as “public space”? Is there a certain way people should look or appear? And to what extent is the Internet a “public space” and should it be regulated? If so, how? More generally, what is the role of technology in a democratic society? By launching a riveting discourse about the role and impact of public spaces, Beyond Zuccotti Park not only encourages us to reflect upon the rights we have as citizens of a democracy, but to also get on our feet and seize the opportunity to fully the embrace these rights in order to create positive change in our communities.
Beyond Zuccotti Park is available for purchase here.
Janey Lee is a college student in Chicago majoring in public policy and French whose life goal is to make everyone recycle.
Images via Michael Pyatok, Tom Bell and Brennan Cavanaugh.