OWS POPs to Forefront of Assembly Rights

Event: Freedom of Assembly: Public Space Today
Location: Center for Architecture, 12.17.11
Speakers: Rick Bell, FAIA — AIANY Executive Director; Alexander Cooper, FAIA — Founding Partner, Cooper Robertson & Partners & architect of Zuccotti Park; Arthur Eisenberg — Legal Director, New York Civil Liberties Union; Dr. Mindy Thompson Fullilove — Professor of Clinical Sociomedical Sciences & Professor of Clinical Psychiatry, College of Physicians and Surgeons, Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health; Lisa Keller — Author & Associate Professor of History, School of Humanities, Purchase College & Columbia University; Elizabeth J. Kennedy, ASLA — Principal, Elizabeth Kennedy Landscape Architect; Brad Lander — Council Member, Progressive Caucus; Gregory Smithsimon — Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology, Brooklyn College; Michael Sorkin — Principal, Michael Sorkin Studios & Distinguished Professor of Architecture, City College of New York
Moderator: Michael Kimmelman — Chief Architecture Critic, The New York Times
Introductory Remarks: Lance Jay Brown, FAIA, ACSA — Distinguished Professor, Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture, City College of New York
Closing Remarks: Ron Shiffman, FAICP — Professor, Pratt Graduate Center for Planning and the Environment
Organizer: Center for Architecture; City College of New York School of Architecture; Pratt Graduate Center for Planning and the Environment

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The Occupy Wall Street movement in two of its formations — at its original location in Zuccotti Park, and then in Juan Pablo Duarte Square.

Rick Bell, FAIA

The First Amendment states that people have the right to assemble, said Lance Jay Brown, FAIA, ACSA, distinguished professor at City College’s Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture. Since the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement was removed from the Privately Owned Public (POP) Zuccotti Park, political rights, social health, and constitutional law surrounding assembly rights have come into question. Brown continued: “Privately Owned Public Space is the biggest game changer… and a big oxymoron.”

From an architectural perspective, for Alexander Cooper, FAIA, founding partner at Cooper Robertson & Partners, architect of Zuccotti Park, and recipient of a 2012 AIA Thomas Jefferson Award for Public Architecture, the question begins with what physically draws a group to a park or square to assemble. Outlining commonalities among the places where Occupiers have congregated nationwide — Oakland, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Boston, in addition to NYC — Cooper pointed out that each of these locations is relatively small, ranging from .8 acres in Boston and NYC to 3.6 acres in Los Angeles. All of the sites are convenient to mass transit, close to financial districts and city halls, and are surrounded by tall buildings. They are protected, intimate, and personal. There are many reasons that this formula seems to work, but one key aspect, said Cooper, is related to the media: when a small group comes together, it looks like a large crowd on film.

While panelists agreed that it was a shame that Occupiers were kicked out of Zuccotti Park, they also agreed part of the problem is that they were gathered in a POP space. Arthur Eisenberg, legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said that the right to assemble (and the definition of what that means — including whether or not police searches are valid, tents/sleeping bags are permitted, perimeter barricades can be installed, etc.) should have been written into the agreement between Brookfield Properties and the city when the joint enterprise for the park was established. This is not a common practice for POP spaces, but perhaps this will change in the future. Gregory Smithsimon, assistant professor in the sociology department at Brooklyn College, pointed out that during the recent development boom, POPs were built assuming that they would be used passively and peacefully. Now that the OWS movement has shown that they could be actively used for political protest as well, he asked how will public space change.

“The threat to health is profound and urgent,” said Dr. Mindy Thompson Fullilove, professor of clinical sociomedical sciences and clinical psychiatry at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. She believes that OWS has revealed that we are living in a fractured society. Collective consciousness is important, and public space is fundamental to a city’s welfare. However, according to author Lisa Keller, “Free speech and protest is the U.S.’s NIMBY. We all believe in it, but no one wants it on their street.”

“If people can’t congregate in public, where will they go?” asked Elizabeth J. Kennedy, ASLA, of Elizabeth Kennedy Landscape Architect. Some have suggested using online social media outlets, although panelists agreed that space in the public realm is much more effective. AIANY Executive Director Rick Bell, FAIA, referenced Jane Jacobs’ fight to mandate that cities provide space for everyone. Council Member Brad Lander suggested rethinking libraries. Since space for physical books is becoming obsolete, he thinks we may soon have large spaces that are well suited for civic gathering. Michael Sorkin proclaimed a “Sidewalks of New York Act,” where individuals and communities decide along with the city how their streets and sidewalks are used, whether it’s for protest or commercial activity.

Whatever the future may bring, Smithsimon emphasized the importance of negotiation. With a constant flow of communication between the government and the public, cities will be able to successfully engage in democratic discussion, and ultimately elevate communities, and the country, beyond chaos and insanity.

Note: Freedom of Assembly was streamed live at USTREAM during the event. Also, click the following link to read “AIA Ponders Public Spaces in the Age of Occupy Wall Street,” by Pete Davies, published 12.19.11 in Curbed.