37. Better Design Public Space for Assembly

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” – Constitution of the United States, Amendment I

What’s the role of public space in the support of freedom of assembly? It has quietly supported our perspective on social justice throughout our country’s history: from the protest of the Stamp Act that sparked the Revolutionary War to the Women’s Suffrage Marches to the Occupy Movement and recently the Women’s March.  As the LA+ Journal notably highlighted, public space doesn’t always bring to mind Plato’s Republic, it can also reflect the negative connotations of surveillance and suppression: from public execution to riots to world changing events like Tiananmen Square.  How can public space better support the established freedom of assembly, providing the safety and security in a public forum?

Tiananmen Square

As Shin-pei Tsay, head of the Gehl Institute, an urban research and advocacy organization, states, “The idea behind protests is that you have the right to expression, and that includes taking up space … Sometimes taking up space is political; sometimes it’s personal. In cities, it can—and should—be both.”

James Corner highlights six important considerations in a recent Wired interview about the Republican National Convention.

  1. A Good Public Square Promotes People Flow“the interaction of a diverse mix of people is allowed to really play out.”
  2. Visibility Is Good for Democracy: “Everyone can see each other and everyone has a sense of equality,”
  3. Statues Are Rallying Points

  4. Police Should be Present, Not Overwhelming: “An off-site staging area for personnel, vehicles, and riot equipment can help keep public tensions in check.”
  5.  An Overflow Area Could Reduce Crowd Density
  6.  A Street Makes the Space Versatile

The Field Operations adaptations of the public space in Cleveland provide interesting insight to South Bend’s recent public assembly events.  While these events successfully hosted a few thousand people, design issues like not seeing or hearing the speakers (visibility), flow (how do cars and people interact during a gathering like that?), or even managing police presence can be done in such a way to better support everyone involved.

Public Assembly 4

Public Assembly 3

Public Assembly 2

Some ways for South Bend to approach this is to first think of the downtown (along Michigan Street at least) as one big public square – from Jon Hunt Plaza to One Michiana Square.  We so often talk about the downtown in terms of parking, that designing that public space through the lens of public assembly first, would almost certainly lead toward different design conclusions.  As the City embarks on its pedestrian centric facelift from the “Smart Streets” initiatives, the next step would be how we can reinforce that direction by better supporting our First Amendment right of public assembly.

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