During the Occupy movement, one of the most important questions asked was who owns our public spaces and what is the role of these spaces and who is allowed (or deterred) from speaking? Beyond Zuccotti Park: Freedom of Assembly and the Occupation of Public Space is a new book that asks: Where can the public congregate and how can city planning, design, and policies support First Amendment rights to public assembly and free speech? The book features essays written by experts in social science, planning, design, civil liberties, urban affairs, and the arts that address the importance of our public spaces as forums for expression with an historic and contemporary lens.
I’m proud to say that many professors, current students and alumni of my alma mater Pratt Institute contributed to this thoughtful and important book. You can read more about the book (and it’s larger initiatives, current exhibitions, lectures and news) through Beyond Zuccotti Park’s Twitter and Facebook pages.
Cities like New York and San Francisco have lead the way in the transformation of our largest public space, our city streets. They have successfully created comfortable, vibrant and welcoming public plazas constructed efficiently and inexpensively by using paint and temporary materials. These plazas can help calm traffic (decreasing incidents of pedestrian and cyclist injury and fatality), encourage walking and cycling (contributing to personal and public health through exercise and the decrease of carbon emissions from cars), and can benefit local businesses (because when you create an attractive space, people are more likely to linger and patronize nearby shops and restaurants.
The hallmarks of these public spaces are their location (converting redundant or wide streets in areas that already have high levels of commercial, pedestrian or cyclist activity), their customizable nature (moveable seating and chairs are always preferable because you can feel comfortable to sit alone or in large groups), and their accessibility (no stairs, adjacent to crosswalks and sidewalks, lots of seating options, shade and visibility).
Los Angeles, with it’s warm weather, wide boulevards and high levels of pedestrian activity in certain neighborhoods could be a perfect playground for these types of public spaces. Last year the Los Angeles Department of Public Health received a grant to decrease obesity rates in Los Angeles and together with the Department of City Planning, they decided to put that money towards Los Angeles’ first street-to-plaza conversion project.
This particular location was chosen because a) the community had been asking for a pedestrian plaza in this area for over 10 years, b) there was already a twice-weekly farmer’s market in this location so the street already had consistent pedestrian activity; and c) as previously mentioned, the street is redundant and sandwiched between a small triangular park and popular businesses whose patrons were usually crowding the tiny sidewalks with bicycles and belongings.
Sunset Triangle Plaza is a one-year pilot project. Early next year community members, city agencies and elected officials will determine whether or not the plaza will become something more permanent or be converted back in to a street.
Street-to-plaza conversion projects can be hard to visualize if you’ve never seen or experienced one before. The wonderful thing about creating temporary demonstration projects is that they allow a city to inexpensively transform public space so residents can see for themselves just how transformative these types of spaces can be.