Oculus - Spring 2014 - (Page 24)

©Manissa Maharawal (left) In September 2012, the Free University hosted more than 100 workshops and free educational events "occupying" Madison Square Park. PUBLIC SPACE REASSERTS ITS POLITICAL ROLE In varied ways, public spaces still provide the political and symbolic places for public debate BY SETHA LOW, MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARAWAL, AND DIMITRIS DALAKOGLOU W hy is the design and preservation of public space so crucial today? Public space is important as open space, a place to breathe within the dense fabric of the city, and as a frame for the architectural urban context. But its civic purposes and symbolic meanings offer the greatest resonance. An emphasis on democratic practices has emerged because of the spatial relationship between public space and the public sphere. Social movements and political uprisings belie arguments that public space and the public sphere have ever been separated. The Arab Spring and global Occupy movements drew inspiration from the jubilant atmosphere and contagious energy of the crowds, but also from the urban design and significance of the public spaces where they occurred. If the public sphere, as described by German sociologist and philosopher Jürgen Habermas, is "the sphere of private people coming together as a public," its emergence has an architectural and spatial context as well as a history of social meanings. Public space and the public sphere represent conjoined arenas of social and political contest and struggle, grounded 24 Oculus Spring 2014 in the planning and design of a city. Consider public space as a location for manifesting dissent, made important when the public sphere is characterized by political exclusion. In reaction to their exclusion, people take to the streets or square to express their right to participation and representation. Democratic politics is about making dissent visible and widening the public sphere to include diverse publics and counterpublics. Public space provides the political and symbolic space for public debate also found in cafés and the media, and on the Internet - the physical and virtual places where the public sphere is located. American philosopher, psychologist, and educator John Dewey's idea that democracy works through the cultivation of shared understandings through diverse voices is expressed through the design of public spaces where people can be recognized and politically active. These moments of openness, however, are also moments of contestation. The following examples illustrate how public space produces this expanded public sphere: THE FREE UNIVERSITY AT MADISON SQUARE PARK Madison Square Park began as the first potter's field in New York City in 1686, and became a public park in 1847. In the late 19th century it was the center of an elite neighborhood and important commercial district. William Grant and Ignatz Pilat redesigned the park in 1870 with formal carriage paths and pastoral landscape elements to frame the area's elegant mansions and architecturally acclaimed buildings. In the 1990s it was renovated with funds raised by the Madison Square Park Conservancy to restore its 1870 design. On September 18, 2012, the day after the one-year Occupy anniversary, the Free University hosted more than 100 workshops and free educational events "occupying" Madison Square Park. Classes included the gift economy, debt, how to "cop-watch," what it means to "occupy" space, horizontal pedagogy, direct action tactics, social-movement building, and non-violence. These were held alongside university courses led by professors who moved their regular classes to the park and opened them to the public. The goal was to build an intentional space of radical free education in an existing public space. Considerable thought went into how the design elements of the park would be used to accommodate activities. The southern side was avoided because it was crowded and noisy. The curvilinear paths of the 1870 design provided landscaped "rooms" where groups of varying sizes could comfortably gather. On the open lawn, yoga and capoeira classes took place, and a Care station was set up with blankets, food, books, and artsand-crafts supplies. On the north side around the fountain and on the steps in front of the Admiral David Farragut Monument, large general assemblies were held. Throughout the week, the park's everyday uses were transformed as were those at Zuccotti Park during Occupy Civic Spirit: Civic Visions

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Oculus - Spring 2014

Letter From the President
Letter From the Editor
Center for Architecture
Some Blocks Over
Opener: Open to the Public: Civic Space Now
The Search for the Soul of Cities
A Different Tale of Two Cities
Public Space Reasserts Its Political Role
Gatherings of One
Time to Welcome Woonerfs
Redesigning the Crossroads of the World
A Magical Place on the Water
How to Remember a Plague
Sustainable Models for a Just City
In Print
50-Year Watch
Last Words
Index to Advertisers

Oculus - Spring 2014

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