Finding occupyable public space ain’t easy!

[The bland Hennepin County Government plaza.]
As part of my gig at the University, I talk a bit too much about public space and why it’s important, droning on and on about how we need it and how its been eroded away over the last 50+ years.

Sidewalks stand in for public space more generally. They're are the most ubiquitous and most important public space we have in our cities. (My flip estimate is something like 99.9% of Twin Cities public space is sidewalks and parks.) So, paying attention to what happens on sidewalks is (obviously) the focus of this blog.

But when the Middle East and North African protests were happening, I noticed how different these cities seemed from the ones we have in the US. For one thing, they’re far more dense. Protests in other parts of the world routinely get ten times the number of people that gather in US cities.

Secondly, there are actual public spaces in which to gather. It seems like every large city around the world has a “square” at its center, places like Beijing’s Tienenmen Square, Moscow’s Red Square, Berlin’s Tiergarden, Cairo’s Tahrir Square, or even Pearl Square in Bahrain. These places are symbolic centers of social life for their cities and countries, places where the government is visibly connected to the people. These are definitive public spaces, and they become important whenever a significant movement starts (or stops).

The US seems to lack these kinds of spaces. On the one hand, our capitol buildings all come with large public spaces. There are the obvious sites for rallies etc., in Washington DC. There is the capitol lawn in St Paul. But these places lie outside the realm of everyday life, away from jobs or shops or houses. These days those kinds of rallies are ignored by almost everyone.

[A mayoral inauguration in Minneapolis's Gateway Park in 1924.]
What we need instead are public spaces seamlessly part of everyday life, connected somehow to our jobs and businesses and daily routines. (New York's Zucotti Park is a really interesting example.) Minneapolis used to have Gateway Park, a large and symbolic public meeting point of the city, right next to city hall. But too many poor people hung out there, so they demolished it and replaced it with an empty fountain, modernist architecture, and unused manicured lawns. Minneapolis, I thought to myself, has managed to design an un-protest-able environment. There’s no “there” there. There’s no center, nowhere that hasn’t been turned into a sculpture park or a landform, all spaces that us meant to be seen and not heard.

I guess that’s why I find the “occupy” movement interesting. I’d never really thought that the Hennepin County Government Plaza was a bona fide public square. It seemed like just another one of the many crappy Minneapolis office building plazas. Sure, it was the most successful plaza in town, but it lacked the scope and majesty of an actual public space.

[Two images of the occupyMN public kitchen in action.]

I guess I was wrong. Kinda. The occupy movement, as few as they are, have managed to turn this boring brick block into a public space. Sitting there and hanging out between the county and the city government buildings does feel “public” in a way.

At the same time, it’s is a bit boring. Once the workers are gone, there’s no actual “public.” You’re surrounded by terrible architecture, each 80s and 90s office tower blander than the last. The parts of the city that actually have people in them are all at least a half a mile away, over by the stadia and restaurants and clubs and theaters and neighborhoods. The occupiers are easily ignored by almost everyone, which is probably one of the reasons why they’re tolerated (so far) by those in power.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens. So far, the transformation is remarkable. Still, I can’t help but think how different this movement might look if it could occupy old Gateway Park. At least there you could stare at the river.
[Signs occupying a bench.]


Unknown said...

The occupy protest is probably the most use that plaza has ever had. I also think it's telling how the middle of the plaza is dissected by 6th St - the road is more important than the people.

Mike Hicks said...

I've always felt similarly about Government Plaza. Way too much red brick makes it a pretty boring place most of the time. And the contrast is... granite? Ugh, reminds me of the benches around the University of Minnesota campus which were always too firm, too cold, or too wet to use when I was there.

There's also a gigantic fountain taking up much of the plaza's center. I wish designers would be more considerate about building places with water features since they need to be turned off for five months out of the year around here. Anyway, with that in the way, it's very hard to get a critical mass of people there. It's sort of an inside-out plaza.

I heard they were considering moving to the U.S. Bank plaza across the street, at least for shelter/sleep (since that's city rather than county jurisdiction), though I don't know if they've actually attempted it yet.

Alex said...

I wonder why they didn't pick Peavey Plaza? It's a bit further from the corporate hq emerald city part of town, but it is across the street from where the news is filmed. I gotta admit, when I heard that they were going to occupy the Government Center Plaza (which I always call the Government Yard in homage a Bob Marley) I was turned off - I'll protest corporations but the government gets enough guff around here.

Stephen Gross said...

I suppose the obvious observation is that since American life is designed around cars, pedestrian-accessible public spaces simply don't get built.

The more sinister undertone is that Americans don't *want* public gatherings any more. I don't know if there's any truth to that, but maybe we can make some conclusions about intentions from observable behavior. Our cities lack public space; ergo, city dwellers don't want public space.

The interesting exception is the WI state capitol in Madison. It's among the most accessible major public buildings I've ever seen. The occupation of that building last year is a testament to it being a well-designed public space.