As the home of White House North and an energized hub for protest, New York City has taken on heightened political significance on the national stage since the election. What changes can the city make to embrace this new role and make itself more amenable to public gathering?
Vishaan Chakrabarti is an architect, a professor at Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture, and author of the book A Country of Cities: A Manifesto for an Urban America. He, along with other leaders of architecture firms and local nonprofits, recently published an online letter to New York City's mayor, Bill de Blasio, about ways to make the city more protest-friendly. He talks to Brooke about how cities around the world can cultivate public spaces for civil discourse.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In response to the many protests that have erupted in New York City over the past few weeks, the leaders of architecture firms and local urban planning nonprofits recently published an online letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio, quote, “We see a powerful opportunity to make strategic improvements to our public spaces that would make these vital gatherings of free expression safer, more effective and even welcoming to all New Yorkers.”
Vishaan Chakrabarti is an architect, a professor at Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture and author of the book, A Country of Cities: A Manifesto for an Urban America. He signed on to that letter and says that with the mounting protests here, especially outside Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue, the city ought to rethink how it accommodates protesters.
VISHAAN CHAKRABARTI: And, of course, Fifth Avenue has been a mess and many people, including our former transportation commissioner, have said, pedestrianize Fifth Avenue.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: One of the most affecting lines in the letter for me was, if it were made a pedestrian space, at least the part of Fifth Avenue near Trump Tower where people are protesting, that this would, quote, “send a strong signal to show who you believe have rank, the people in the commons, not the dwellers of the penthouse.”
VISHAAN CHAKRABARTI: I mean, we do have a White House North situation. Pennsylvania Avenue, of course, is closed in front of the White House, both for security reasons but also for this idea of public gathering. I think there's a way to do this so that people can really speak their voices, and I think it's extraordinarily important right now.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what were some of the recommendations in the letter?
VISHAAN CHAKRABARTI: We had a number of recommendations, but one of the ones that I found the most interesting was this idea of networking our public spaces so that it wasn't just about Fifth Avenue. You could have coordinated activity across a series of public spaces in all five boroughs and that you could get information either through your smart phone or they have these new LinkNYC terminals.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: These are places where you can charge your phone or get free Wi-Fi, a little tiny hot spot.
VISHAAN CHAKRABARTI: Exactly. Information flow is incredibly important.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you say that this is a nonpartisan effort, all across red and blue states, but specifically in cities. This is much more of an urban phenomenon across the country, no matter where.
VISHAAN CHAKRABARTI: Going back to the Greek agora, you have the village square, you have the town square. That’s where people get together and actually talk about ideas and have arguments and debates. We live in a time in which we need much more political discourse in this country. If you want the revolution to be televised, you go where the people are –
- and you go where the media is. You don't go out in the desert or the cornfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do we take public spaces for granted?
VISHAAN CHAKRABARTI: I think what we take for granted is the idea that public space isn't just an amenity, it isn't just a place for an office worker to eat their sandwich at lunch, that it also has to be the space for people to gather, debate and have civil discourse.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, if people take public spaces for granted, governments don't, do they? I mean, give me an example where the lack of a public space is specifically intended to thwart protest?
VISHAAN CHAKRABARTI: The one that comes to mind is Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia and this place called Deera Square, which is clearly not a place where you could stage a workers’ rights protest or a woman’s rights protest. It's meant mainly as a kind of stage set. It has a nickname called “Chop Chop Square.” A lot of pretty harsh corporal punishment does happen - there. This is not, I think, what great city planning minds had in mind when they created public space.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Doesn't part of a protest’s impact lie in the fact that it's a little chaotic? If cities are streamlined for protest, wouldn’t that diminish a protest’s impact?
VISHAAN CHAKRABARTI: I think it's not about streamlining so much. You know, about a third of Manhattan today is given over to cars, its roadway. I don't think the government should have anything to do with the protests, other than providing basically the infrastructure. And by that I mean the physical infrastructure of the space, the virtual infrastructure of broadband, where it’s required, and, of course, a police force that is working with peaceful demonstration in a way that is good for everyone. Where the protest goes from there may change very much, depending on what's being protested and who's organizing it, and I don't think the government should have any hand in that.
I found it fascinating and really, really smart that a lot of the Black Lives Matter protests have happened on highways, and that's because –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
VISHAAN CHAKRABARTI: - the construction of highways in this country has a very, very difficult history, in terms of urban African-American communities, urban renewal ripping through these communities, and so forth. And so, all of a sudden you see Black Lives Matter protests taking over highways and saying, we’re not gonna use the nice dressed-up public plaza that someone designed for us to do the protests, we’re gonna do it in a space that really impacted our community and where our voices will be heard. To me, this isn’t a one-size-fits-all situation. So what all of us wrote in that letter isn't meant to be the only place where demonstrations will happen, and the airport, I think, is a prime example.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And so, what would be the number-one thing that you would advise any city to consider?
VISHAAN CHAKRABARTI: To welcome this and not be afraid of it. For instance, in the design of parks there's this thing called desire lines, where you might plant a bunch of grass and you see where people are blazing a trail and there's sort of a path of dead grass ‘cause that’s where most people are walking, and that's where you put the path because you understand that's what people want to do. And it’s sort of looking for those desire lines. It’s saying, where are people gathering, how are they doing this and how can you actually make it something that is just a natural part of the life of the city? You might not naturally think that an airport needs places where people will protest, but it turns out that it does.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Vishaan, thank you very much.
VISHAAN CHAKRABARTI: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Vishaan Chakrabarti is a professor at Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture. He is an architect and author of, A Country of Cities: A Manifesto for Urban America.
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, The Breaking News Consumers Handbook, Protest Edition.