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AIA Ponders Public Spaces in the Age of Occupy Wall Street

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The Occupy Wall Street protests have raised a major question for architects, legal eagles, and other concerned folks: what makes up truly public space in New York City, where urban planning decisions can constrain the citizens' rights to assemble and express themselves? A panel convened by the American Institute of Architects Saturday, moderated by Times archicritic Michael Kimmelman, tried to address just this question. The entire two-hour discussion can be viewed at USTREAM, but since we were in the audience, a few highlights.
Several members of the panel have done broad studies of the Occupy sites and of past NYC riots, so they pointed to some Occupy trends. Alexander Cooper?whose firm Cooper, Robertson & Partners created the post-9/11 award-winning plan for Zuccotti Park?analyzed a dozen occupation sites in cities around the country. Cooper and his team found that most of the spaces chosen by OWS were small and compact, with tremendous access to mass transit. Almost all were downtown sites, close to both financial districts and city halls. Most were enclosed, surrounded by tall buildings, quite protected, very intimate and very personal. As Cooper discovered, "It was as if the twelve sites talked to each other before deciding where to go ... in many ways they were the least likely, rather than most probable, sites that would be chosen."

But a lack of civic spaces within cities is part of what led to Occupy Wall Street, said social psychiatrist Dr. Mindy Thompson Fillilove. "The more a society is fractured and people are unable to talk to each other, the more we drive that mind-politic toward madness," she says. Historian Lisa Keller lays the blame for that lack of civic spaces on the 1811 Grid Plan, essentially a real estate deal put together by our city fathers. Two hundred years ago they sealed our fate by placing a commercial scheme ahead of everything else, including adequate space for community uses, resulting in a lack of public squares where people can come together to address grievances and petition those in charge. Keller pointed out that it's even been a law in New York since 1872?following the bloody Astor Place Draft Riots during the Civil War and the Orange Riots of 1871?that a permit is required for a gathering of more than twenty people, so any "right" in NYC to assemble in large numbers is illusory.

So is there any alternative for the protestors of Occupy? Architect and urban theorist Michael Sorkin offered one at the close of the panel: a 30-point plan calling for a new code covering sidewalk uses throughout the city, to be administered and controlled, individually and collectively, by local block associations.
· Freedom of Assembly: Public Space Today [AIA New York - Center for Architecture]
· Freedom of Assembly [UStream]
· Zuccotti Park coverage [Curbed]