Right to the City

In defense of public space: Why planners should protect the right to occupy public space in the Trump Administration

I am delighted to announce that In defense of public space was published in the Perspectives: Spring 2017 Issue of the Wagner Planneran independent student newsletter of the Urban Planning Students Association (UPSA) at NYU Wagner. Many thanks to the publication’s editors, Niki Kokkinos and Ashley Smith, for taking an interest in my passion for preserving and re-imagining the role of public space in urban life, which is more important now than ever.

“‘In Defense of Public Space,’ urges us to consider the level of access, freedom, and mobility we should expect from public space within the dense urban environment.”

Editors Niki Kokkinos and Ashley Smith, the Wagner Planner

“Thank you for writing about a relevant topic that is sure to continue to be relevant throughout the next 4 years.”

– Editor Niki Kokkinos, the Wagner Planner

The full article is below. To read the article in the Wagner Planner, please click on the following link: In defense of public space: Why planners should protect the right to occupy public space in the Trump Administration.

The feature image depicts brave women and men protesting during the Women’s March 2017 in Washington D.C. Feature image credit: Chang W. Lee, The New York Times

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In 1968, the French Marxist philosopher, Henri Lefebvre, stated that the right to the city is “like a cry and a demand,” and Don Mitchell, Professor of Geography at the Maxwell School of Syracuse, in the aftermath of 9/11 exclaimed that it is a right bourne from struggle that must be heard now more than ever and put into practice.[1] Today we turn once again to the right to the city, especially in terms of the right to occupy public space in peaceful protest. In the wake of the 2016 Presidential election, the nation finds itself rallying around deportation, climate change denial, the abortion ban, Islamophobia, and various other social grievances. Public space is required to engage in political protest, although it is important to understand that the idea of public space and its role in urban life has never been guaranteed. Therefore, the Trump Era requires a new wave of urgency for planners to join in the struggle to help preserve the right to public space for political protest and civic engagement.

The idea of privacy drastically changed in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on 9/11. While the attacks reinvigorated a sense of nationalism and patriotism amongst the American people, the hastily adopted Patriot Act allowed the government to target American citizens through warrantless surveillance in hopes to intercept acts of terror organized from within the country’s borders. The government agency responsible for intelligence collection is the National Security Agency (NSA). The NSA typically collects and processes data for foreign intelligence and counterterrorism purposes, called ‘signals intelligence.’ However, after the enactment of the Patriot Act, the NSA secretly began collecting an alarmingly wide array of personal information from the American people through phone records, computer records, credit history, and banking history. Personal information suddenly became accessible to over 34,000 law enforcement and intelligence agents through the issuance of administrative subpoenas, or National Security Letters (NSL), which are used to gather information for national security purposes without a judge’s approval. If anyone receives an NSL, they are prohibited from telling anyone, which has been alleged unconstitutional in several legal cases.[2] The NSA’s deliberate abuse of privacy was in direct violation of Fourth Amendment rights, and remains controversial today not only for its unconstitutionality, but for its ineffectiveness. Arguably the Patriot Act let the government exceed its authority over the American people, not effectively combat terrorism.

The idea and use of public space also changed in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on September 11th. In his book, The right to the city: Social justice and the fight for public space, Mitchell wrote that public space in urban areas was seen as a threat by security experts after 9/11, and there was a massive push to convert public space to ‘defensible space.’ He referenced an article in the New York Times written by David Barstow, a three-time Pulitzer Prize winning American journalist who interviewed nine security and terrorism experts immediately following 9/11. Due to the attacks, each expert had embraced a “bunker, bomb-camp mindset,”[3] and were willing to make New York City safe at any cost. When asked what it would take to make New York City safe without resource constraints, the experts envisioned a “city transformed,” complete with antiaircraft missiles protecting the Statue of Liberty, converting Times Square into a pedestrian mall to foil truck bombs, installing shatter-resistant film over the windows of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, police regularly patrolling Grand Central with the aid of bomb-sniffing dogs, and beefing up security throughout the city, incorporating previously unpalatable tactics, such as increasing profiling and intrusive random searches and seizures.[4] Mitchell further explained that the experts also unanimously agreed that it was now necessary to close off “the steps to churches, cathedrals, and synagogues, [install] hundreds of surveillance cameras around important public spaces and along ‘vulnerable’ streets, [as well as install] more bomb proof windows, trash cans, and so forth” (p. 1).[5]

Public space in urban areas was seen as a threat by security experts after 9/11, and there was a massive push to convert public space to ‘defensible space.’

The sentiment to secure public space following the attacks on 9/11 was understandable, however, it further stifled with the publicness of public space, which had already been fortified in an effort to secure the city a generation earlier. The purpose of enhancing surveillance in New York City during the nineties was not to protect the city from terrorists, but to protect the public from ‘inappropriate users’ of public space, including the homeless, drug dealers, loitering youth, and, quite deliberately, political activists protesting outside of city hall, marching in the streets, or rallying in parks and squares. Therefore, in an effort to enhance security throughout the city in the nineties, officials also advertently thwarted the public’s means for dissent. Americans in the aftermath of 9/11 were warned to prepare for the elimination of certain civil liberties as well, much like how the right to free speech was undermined during social movements of the 1910s and 1960s due to “spatial restrictions on where one [could] speak” (p. 4).[6]

The sentiment to secure public space following the attacks on 9/11 was understandable, however, it further stifled with the publicness of public space, which had already been fortified in an effort to secure the city a generation earlier.

The struggle over human rights and the right to occupy public space in the United States has been a relentless uphill battle for several decades. Congressman John Lewis, a civil rights icon, tweeted in July that voting is “the most powerful non-violent tool we have.”[7] Yet leading to the 2016 Presidential election, Lewis reminded the American people in an interview with ATTN: of the sacrifices required to win the right to vote: “People struggled to participate in the democratic process. People were shot, murdered.”[8] Lewis proceeded to explain that during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, a group of activists attempted to march from Selma to Montgomery urging for the right of African Americans to be able to vote; however, the police ordered for the march to cease, and people were brutally beaten and trampled by horses. Nevertheless, the sacrifices of civil rights activists from what became known as Bloody Sunday were not in vain. Finally by August 6, 1965, African Americans won the right to vote when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law.[9]

History has proven time and time again that struggle over basic human rights and the right to occupy public space in this country is a necessary precondition to guaranteeing and preserving the rights of American citizens. The 2017 Presidential Inauguration on Friday, January 20th, 2016 will prove to be no different, especially given Trump’s hostile attitude towards anyone who delegitimizes his presidency, and the militarization of the public space surrounding his 5th Avenue apartment. The American people will rally outside of the White House to protest the election and violations of their basic civil liberties, until protesting in such a visible space is overcome by the need to render it utterly defensible, and people are ordered to disperse. However, given the fervor amongst the American people to assemble in front of the White House (and elsewhere), demonstrating their collective grievances, provides all the more reason to protect their right to mobilize in public spaces. Like the Americans who struggled before us, we shouldn’t have to struggle for our rights, but we should be able to.

History has proven time and time again that struggle over basic human rights and the right to occupy public space in this country is a necessary precondition to guaranteeing and preserving the rights of American citizens…Like the Americans who struggled before us, we shouldn’t have to struggle for our rights, but we should be able to.

Remaking cities in the likeness of openness and justice following the 2016 Presidential election will be harder than ever as the new administration pushes for security and order, and transfigures public (and private) space into defensible space as has been done during the Civil Rights Movement and following the attacks on 9/11. However, to recast the words of Don Mitchell, it is also more necessary than ever. As planners, we should do everything in our power to reorient public space for this purpose, and to protect the ‘right to the city’ because cities, as Anthony Vidler wrote in the New York Times, are the center of culture and public spaces define urban culture.[10] From city streets to public parks, and from public transportation to city processes, the purpose of public space should be re-prioritized for the present needs of the community, including civic engagement and public protest. noun_766494-1

References

[1] Mitchell, D. (2003). The right to the city: Social justice and the fight for public space. New York, New York: The Guilford Press.

[2] O’Cleirigh, F. (2015, April). Bill Binney, the ‘original’ NSA whistleblower, on Snowden, 9/11 and illegal surveillance. Computer Weekly. Retreived from link

[3] Barstow, D. (2001, September 16). After the attacks: Security; Envisioning an expensive future in The Brave New World of Fortress New York. New York Times. Retrieved from link

[4] Barstow, D. (2001, September 16). After the attacks: Security; Envisioning an expensive future in The Brave New World of Fortress New York. New York Times. Retrieved from link

[5] Mitchell, D. (2003). The right to the city: Social justice and the fight for public space. New York, New York: The Guilford Press.

[6] Mitchell, D. (2003). The right to the city: Social justice and the fight for public space. New York, New York: The Guilford Press.

[7] Fang, M. (2016, October 3). Rep. John Lewis: Voting is ‘the most powerful non-violent tool we have.’ The Huffington Post. Retrieved from link

[8] ATTN:. (August 2016). “The right to vote is precious.” VIDEO: link

[9]History. (n.d.). Voting Rights Act. Retrieved on January 15, 2017, from link

[10] Vidler, A. (2001, September 23). Aftermath; A city transformed; Designing ‘defensible space.’ New York Times. Retrieved from link

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