The Secret to a Happy, Healthy City? Places for People to Protest

The secret to a happy, healthy city? Places for people to protest
© Brit Worgan

What makes a city great? Museums and culture, sure. Maybe a good opera company or a constellation of dance crews. Bars with fresh garnishes, good schools, a historic building or 20.

Maybe your first answer here isn’t “a park!” or “that dinky plaza near my office where I eat lunch twice a week!”

Yet more and more research says that open public spaces and streets are a key to making a city great—for nature and bench designers, sure, but not just that. These are where people gather naturally, to socialize and, in a politicized time, to protest. And those two functions make public space the key to the economic and social health of cities.

Urban planners have long known what’s up. In the late 1970s, the sociologist William H. Whyte famously creeped on public plazas in New York City to determine which ones fostered community and activity and which didn’t. Last month, just before the Women’s March descended on New York’s 5th Avenue, 13 design, architecture, and civics experts wrote an open letter to New York Mayor Bill De Blasio recommending ways to return New York City’s land to its citizens. They pitched increasing the size and number of local parks and plazas, improving access to these gathering places, and pedestrianizing major thoroughfares in midtown Manhattan.

In other words: Give people more beautiful, functional space to do with as they please—whether those activities involve posterboard and bullhorns or just sunbathing with friends. “Public spaces should fundamentally allow for expression,” says Shin-pei Tsay, a signatory to the De Blasio letter and head of the Gehl Institute, an urban research and advocacy organization. […]