This is the first in a series of blog posts by urban planner and Scribble Producer Katherine Hernandez.
Long part of city design, public spaces have played the role of social hub and marketplace, and have helped to formulate civic identity through architecture and community activities. So deep are the roots of public spaces in cities that they continue to be part of the built environment even as they face privatisation.
Increasing privatisation of public assets and changing built environments also reflects current world affairs. Calls for government and corporate transparency and a response to structural inequality are not uncommon themes in today’s headlines. In some cases, these concerns have translated into public demonstrations—highlighting the crucial role that public space plays in democracy by being public gathering places. Around the world in town halls and streets, people have come together to stand against injustice and express their beliefs.
More often than not, the public space chosen when demanding that rights and contributions be recognised has its own significance. The site-specific nature of protests highlights the cultural values attached to place. While those values impact the decision to use a public space for democratic expression, other factors—such as its design and surrounding built environment—make some public spaces far more amenable to this action.
On the 18 February this year, Melbourne was at nearly peak pedestrian. White Night festivities claimed much of the CBD streets for people to enjoy public art into the early morning hours. Cut to the front of the State Library of Victoria (SLV) and on the steps of the building, a protest had carved a space out for itself amongst a very big crowd.
Certainly not the first protest to take place in front of the SLV, probably not even the 200th, but it was the first I had seen take place on a night where the city had been nearly entirely shut down for another event. Often here, it is the other way around. Big protests that occur in the center of the city and use the front lawn of the library require the traffic to move around it. The logistics of this protest certainly took a lot of thought and care.
The SLV lawn is one of the most popular public spaces in the CBD. For starters, its a lawn in front of a public building with no barricade within the Hoddle grid. It’s basically a unicorn. A pleasant place to sit throughout the day, it is accessible by train, tram, bus, bike lanes, and by wide footpaths along Swanston Street. The library itself provides free wifi and sits opposite two shopping centers, a university, and a host of other retail and food and beverage shops. The lawn is elevated to the sidewalk and the street while the center steps move from the sidewalk all the way to the entrance of the library, providing natural seating and viewing areas. The surrounding buildings are taller with windows that look onto the lawn giving it almost an amphitheater like quality
If we temporarily close our minds to the cultural context of the lawn being in front of a place of knowledge, the logistics and amenities are impeccable. If you want to be seen and reached, this is the place.
Particular attention to the preservation of these existing public spaces and how the design of new public spaces to contribute to democratic expression is increasingly on the radar of planners and designers who also see design as a form of protest. Places for protest and demonstration is city design for people and contributes to building a thriving society. Who doesn’t want to live in one of those?