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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