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Occupy Wall Street and the Future of Urban Public Space

By Irwin Arieff

Which came first, the protest or the park?

Was Occupy Wall Street a smash hit national political movement from Day One that only incidentally ended up in New York’s Zuccotti Park? Or was setting up housekeeping in the park the spark that led to the movement’s success?

In “Beyond Zuccotti Park: Freedom of Assembly and the Occupation of Public Space,” OWS protesters, admirers and camp followers argue that both perspectives are correct: in essence, the movement and the space it occupied became inseparable, one and the same.

In this 400-page collection of 37 separate pieces — some in the form of interviews and scholarly articles, others in the form of essays, diaries and musings — the bottom line is: Without suitable urban public spaces, true democracy and free expression cannot exist; absent a thriving society that yearns to speak freely, setting aside public space is a hollow gesture.

“Social Movements are fundamentally about public space,” insists Benjamin Shepard, an assistant professor at the City University of New York, in one article. The Occupy Wall Street Movement “proved that no matter how instrumental new media have become in spreading protest these days, nothing replaces people taking to the streets,” adds New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman, writing in the book’s foreword.

From the start, the editors of this project attempted to focus on the issue of urban space and its crucial role in American life. They shared a commitment, they said, “to the important role that public space, universal access, equity and design can play to enhance democracy and promote freedom of expression.”

“We do not focus here on the many diverse issues the Occupy Movement has raised in this country and beyond, but rather on the physical arena Occupy actors and all citizens perform from. We focus … in essence, on the right to fully exercise one’s democratic freedom,” according to the book’s introduction.

Sadly, the editors failed to inform many of their writers of their plans.

Too many of the articles dwell on the details of the occupiers’ daily lives — glorifying how they ate, read, drummed, promoted their various causes, communicated with one another, preached to passersby, laid their plans and managed their solid waste. On the issue of city spaces, these have little to say beyond a plea that we need more parks and they need to be freely accessible to, and suitable for, protests and protesters.

Going back to the beginning, the OWS movement was hatched in the New York City financial district in September 2011. Demonstrators gathered in the downtown area near Wall Street, biked and marched, voiced their concerns and decided to try to stick around.

The movement’s initial goal was one of protest. Despite the near-collapse of the U.S. economy and global financial markets a few years earlier, the wealthiest 1 percent of the population had come to control the reins of U.S. economic and political power, leaving the remaining 99 percent essentially powerless, the organizers lamented. The rich were getting richer and the poor poorer, money was dominating politics, and the banks were left free to incur further economic damage without fear of paying any penalty.

But in taking shape, the movement coincidentally put a spotlight on urban public space by taking up temporary residence in privately owned but publicly accessible Zuccotti Park. Soon, parallel OWS campaigns in cities around the world were following in its footsteps by taking over their own local gathering places and setting up camp. Continue reading

October’s Frontline Park: The Parklands at Floyds Fork

Each month, City Parks Alliance recognizes a “Frontline Park” to promote and highlight inspiring examples of urban park excellence, innovation, and stewardship across the country. The program also seeks to highlight examples of the challenges facing our cities’ parks as a result of shrinking municipal budgets, land use pressures, and urban neighborhood decay.

Photo Courtesy of 21st Century Parks

The Parklands at Floyds Fork is one of the nation’s largest metropolitan parks projects – scheduled to be completely open to the public by the end of 2015.  The Parklands is comprised of four major parks in Louisville, connected by a park road, an urban trail system, and a canoe trail centered on a broad stream called Floyds Fork.  Floyds Fork is a tributary of the Salt River (which drains into the Ohio River), running through eastern and southeastern portions of Jefferson County, Kentucky. It is the largest and least-polluted watershed in Louisville, but one which, formerly rural, is now undergoing rapid residential and commercial development.

Photo Courtesy of 21st Century Parks

Founded in 2004, 21st Century Parks is the nonprofit responsible for the creation and long-term operations of a system of new public parks in Louisville.  The organization employs best practices in land use and infrastructure planning, watershed protection, education programming, historic preservation, multi-modal trail development, and design of recreational spaces. Working with their strategic partners, Louisville Metro Government and the nonprofit Future Fund, 21st Century Parks has acquired and protected into perpetuity nearly 3,800 acres of new park land in the Floyds Fork watershed corridor, resulting in one of the nation’s five largest new metropolitan parks projects – the only one that is 90% funded and scheduled to open to the public within five years.

To date, 21st Century Parks has secured $113 million for land acquisition and park development, and they hope to push toward a goal of $120 million by the end of 2012.  From educational programs to world-class trail systems, they are building one of the finest and most exciting new park systems in the country; providing wellness, environmental, economic, and educational benefits that will thrive for generations.

To learn more about The Parklands at Floyds Flork, please visit 21st Century Parks.

The “Frontline Parks” program is made possible with generous support from DuMor, Inc. and PlayCore.