99% Entertaining

In the last two days I have read more blogs and tweets than I have in the past year. I am fascinated by how events in The City are going down. For those who are not aware, thousands of people have gathered to protest against…well…pretty much everything. The epicenter is Wall Street but there are similar “occupations” in cities around the country. Regardless of whether or not you agree with the sentiment(s), the whole spectacle is immensely compelling.

Any questions?
I must admit, however, that I find it compelling for its entertainment value as well. I love conspiracies theories. I don’t believe in the Pentaverate, or the nefarious nature of the Bilderberg Group, but I am a sucker for a good story. There are tons of interesting stories and theories coming out of the current events: social media platforms caving to their corporate donors to prevent trending, traditional media being censored, Radiohead showing up for a free concert, and corporate payoffs of police departments for protection.

Conspiracies are much better when accompanied by graphics.
Apparently, this has been going for three weeks, but I didn’t hear anything about it until somebody tweeted that Radiohead was going to do a free show there. I turned to the mainstream news websites to find out about what was happening and got nothing.  There are, at times, thousands of protesters (700 of which were arrested for shutting down the Brooklyn Bridge) and at 5:00pm on Sunday night CNN has no mention of that while featuring the following stories: “Elizabeth Hurley, cricketer engaged” , “Giant pumpkin weighs 800 lbs.”, and “Football game ends in brawl”. I’m not exactly sure what the protesters are all about, but regardless of their point of view, the assemblies qualify as news. (update: as of Monday morning there are a number of stories in major media outlets.)

Politics and conspiracy theory aside, how is this influenced by urban design? Political protests around the globe follow an easy recipe. The aggrieved parties go to their most important shared civic space and make their voices heard. These are places like Tahrir Square, Tiananmen Square, Gamal Abdel Nasser Sqaure, Triumfalnaya Square, Zuccatti Park (formerly Liberty Plaza). Note that these places were not designed for the single purpose of staging protests. These civic spaces were designed to accommodate a broad range of peaceful and productive community activities and to serve ceremonial purposes as well. Regardless of the purpose, most communities have an understanding of where the citizenry gathers for purpose, their communal center. If you take a broad view of human history, you could argue that the primary purpose of the city is to serve that function.  

For a moment, forget all of the myriad problems created by the suburbanization of our country save communal gathering. The current model of the American city is in no way conducive to the spontaneous (or even planned) gathering of the community in a single place that has a shared value to the community**. In that sense, our cities have failed to fulfill what is perhaps their primary purpose. Yet another failing of the sub-urban model.

Lest you think I am all doom and gloom, there are indeed cities in our country that defy that model in terms of communal space. Chattanoogans happen to be some of the fortunate few living in such a place. If there came a time for Chattanoogans to protest or revolt (I am not encouraging protests or revolutions, this is purely a “what if?”) how do our current land use patterns support that activity? Will the revolution be televised from the Kohl’s at Eastgate Town Center? Will the masses gather in the Abuelo's Mexican Food Embassy parking lot at Hamilton Place? Of course not. Our community knows that downtown is our community gathering place. Fortunately, those communal gatherings have been (mostly) peaceful events centered around alcohol music: Riverbend, Wine Over Water, Nightfall, River Rocks, and list goes on and on and on.

Pissed Chattanoogans? No, Chattanoogans getting pissed!

Thirty years ago, the Design Studio had a dual-goal in an effort to aid the rebirth of our downtown. The first was return to the river, the birthplace of our city, our “front porch”, Ross’s Landing. The second was to reestablish a “heart” of the city, Miller Plaza. Both of those places are generous, accessible communal gathering places. They are essentially the two “go to” venues for community activities. Yet, if our community was to protest something (again, not advocating, merely musing), I don’t believe we would use either of these places (although I seem to remember the TEA party having a shin-dig at the riverfront). For my money the best protest site in town would be Miller Park.

I don't think Ross's Landing is a good place to protest. it's
hard to stay angry in a beautiful place right next to a river.

Why would protesters chose Miller Park over Miller Plaza? Despite the fact that it has an almost bucolic, oasis-like feel at times, the Park has just enough of an edge of modernist austerity to make it protest-worthy. The Park is also sandwiched in-between two imposing institutional buildings- focus points for objectors. On the other hand, the Plaza has a more human-scaled design that just doesn’t seem congruent with righteous indignation…it’s a happy place.

Now that's a place where I can get pissed!

On the macro level, what remains to be seen is whether these national protests will prove to be the American Autumn following the Muslim Spring or if this was just a bunch of slackers angling to get a free Radiohead concert. Closer to home, we need to be continuing our discussion on civic priorities and on the stewardship of our inherited environment.

**Note, this is not a conspiracy theory that the powers that be influenced the development patterns of our country to deprive the masses of a suitable place to protest…or is it…

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