One phenomenon that the Occupy Wall Street movement has crystallized in remarkable fashion is the unapologetic negotiation of the physical occupation of urban space. But before considering the context within which OWS has been operating, and what its successes and challenges may be, it is instructive to look into the deeper history of public space in New York. While some observers have examined how the spatial reality of the city, as presently constituted, influences the ability of its citizens to assemble and, implicitly, protest, I would submit that said spatial reality is really a symptom of not just physical geography, but also the landscape of legal precedents, political negotiations and accretions. This is an enormous – and enormously interesting – topic, so I will attempt to limit my remarks to the history of New York as seen through its street grid, its negotiation of what appear to be rights, and the intersection of political and commercial reality.
Thus it is a timely coincidence that 2011 marks the anniversary of the original “grid” plan, as conceived by the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811. Prior to its adoption by New York, street-grid planning had already had a long history – consider, among others, Francisco Pizarro’s original plan for Lima, Peru, conceived in the mid-16th century. The grid was seen by planners as an attractive alternative to the messy results of “organic” growth, that is, growth that lead to narrow alleys, winding streets and tortuous property claims. Such bottom-up density also made the broader provision of services difficult, and seemed to encourage the spread of disease and crime. Thus an authoritative master plan was the perfect means to sweep away the accumulated social and economic flotsam and jetsam that came with the decades of thousands of citizens scrapping and scraping for economic survival/prosperity over decades. (This tendency to overly treasure the act of tabula rasa continues to manifest itself today, most frequently as usually disastrous slum clearances in the cities of the developing world).
However, these same planners were confronted with a dilemma: by creating cleaner city layouts, the same designs that encourage mobility, commerce and interaction may, at the same time, encourage unwanted assembly, whereby citizens congregate in order to air grievances, hold strikes and generally foment the kind of unrest that might bring down a government. It is one thing to be all in favour of freedom of assembly or expression, but quite another to embody those rights within the built environment itself, no matter (or especially) what UNESCO might hold dear.
Fascinating article. As a lifelong Bostonian, I love the confusion of our streets as compared to somewhere like Manhattan. Grids are just boring and unfriendly. Life is supposed to be filled with quirks and anomalies.