The November 20 Rally to Protect Progress in Diversity Plaza, Jackson Heights, Queens (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

In a letter sent to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, 12 area architecture, urban planning, and design organizations advocate for the protection and expansion of the city’s public space. Earlier this month, one of those organizations, the Van Alen Institute, posted the “Public Space for Free Expression” letter on its site. The text emphasizes the current importance of having these accessible spaces for protest and demonstration:

As more New Yorkers take to the streets in the coming weeks and months, we see a powerful opportunity, and an urgent need, to make strategic improvements to our public spaces — our civic commons — that would make these vital gatherings of free expression safer, more effective, and even welcoming to all New Yorkers who want to participate in civic action.

The letter outlines seven steps the mayor’s administration could take “to ensure that these events of free expression are welcoming and successful, as New Yorkers come together in greater numbers to celebrate and protect our rights.” These steps are (with each elaborated on in the letter):

1. Continue your support and funding for the public plaza program.
2. Expand space at popular protest sites.
3. 14th Street as Key Locus of Public Expression.
4. Expand weekend street programs.
5. Networked simultaneous citywide protest events.
6. Facilitate Mass Bicycle Rides.
7. Pedestrianize 5th Avenue Midtown.

Signers on the letter include leaders of PAU, Design Trust for Public Space, the Horticultural Society of New York’s Neighborhood Plaza Program, New Yorkers for Parks, Project for Public Spaces, Van Alen Institute, Street Plans, Institute for Public Architecture, the Municipal Art Society of New York, Gehl Institute, WXY Architects, Transportation Alternatives, and Regional Plan Association. These organizations joining together for free expression is especially of note as it follows the American Institute of Architects’ recent tone-deaf memo in support of President-elect Donald Trump.

May Day strike in Union Square, with signs in English, Italian, and Yiddish (May 1, 1913) (via Library of Congress/Wikimedia)

One could say it’s not much of a protest if it’s so supported by the current political power, yet the erosion of public and civic space for demonstration is a serious international issue. The 2017 Global Risks Report from the World Economic Forum notes that “civil society organizations and individual activists are increasingly experiencing government crackdowns on civic space, ranging from restrictions on foreign funding to surveillance of digital activities and even physical violence.” The newly launched CIVICUS Monitor, an initiative to track civic space, further illustrates this oppression with an interactive map of 134 countries. Only 16 of them are rated as “open” in their treatment of civic space. (The United States is rated as “narrowed,” whereas countries like Saudi Arabia and Libya are rated as “closed.”)

Furthermore, considering Trump’s unabashed praise for Vladimir Putin, it’s vital to highlight Russia’s heavy constraints on public demonstrations and punishments of peaceful protestors. The Human Rights Watch stated in its 2017 World Report that the Russian Government has “tightened control over already shrinking space for free expression and stepped up persecution of independent critics during 2016.”

Demonstrators at Trump Tower in November 2016 (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

That public space is endangered as a place of free expression in many places is not just a concern for protests. Being able to gather for art or other non-political activities on a daily basis is essential for encouraging participation in the future of a community. The letter from the NYC organizations emphasizes how recently established plazas like Diversity Plaza in Jackson Heights have already been important post-election rally hubs, and how initiatives such as Summer Streets or mass bicycling events reinforce city-wide relationships with public space.

And there’s even an opportunity for that right outside Trump Tower, which is currently a clogged artery of Manhattan with its enhanced security and blocked streets. Janette Sadik-Khan argued in a New York Times op-ed this month that Fifth Avenue should become a pedestrian street with only mass transit, to “create a truly American public space: an entirely new civic platform at the nation’s new center of political gravity.” The more public spaces there are for free expression, the more opportunities for civic engagement, which is crucial in any society that values the free speech rights of its citizens.

Read the full “Public Space for Free Expression” letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio at Van Alen Institute. 

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print and online media since 2006. She moonlights...