The Role of Public Spaces After Tragedy

The urban environment functions as more than just a setting. It also gives meaning to demonstrations, like the one happening in Paris.
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Protesters gather in Paris following the attack on Charlie Hebdo offices. (Photo: Corentin Béchade/Wikimedia Commons)

Protesters gather in Paris following the attack on Charlie Hebdo offices. (Photo: Corentin Béchade/Wikimedia Commons)

It’s become all too common; in Ferguson, in New York City, in Germany, and this week in Paris—an outraged public takes to the streets in response to tragedy and inequality, sometimes as a call for change.

Mass demonstrations have become something of a gut reaction lately. While the size, intensity, and context of a protest are its defining characteristics, its relationship to space—that is, the protest’s setting—is just as important.

There is an intricate and reciprocal relationship between public space and sociopolitical demonstrations, argues Dr. Tali Hatuka, head of the Laboratory of Contemporary Urban Design in Israel. In response to tragedy or injustice, protests help embed our urban landscape with “symbolism and iconography.” If a city, or a landmark in particular, has a complex history, it can act as a tool to generate meaning. The space provides us opportunity to embrace negotiation and opposition, sometimes confrontation, Tali argues.

In response to tragedy or injustice, protests help embed our urban landscape with "symbolism and iconography." If a city, or a landmark in particular, has a complex history, it can act as a tool to generate meaning.

“Demonstrations are more than a question of grievance, control, legality, or even collective behavior. It is about reclaiming the local spaces of cities, upon which politics is made real for people,” she says.

While these urban settings can define a demonstration, a mass gathering can reciprocally redefine places that have been tarnished by terror or struggle. After September 11, New Yorkers gathered in Union Square, the closest open public space to Ground Zero. In Ferguson, protestors took to the streets, the same place where Michael Brown was killed. On Monday in Paris, demonstrators marched to Place de la Republique, an iconic French square.

This notion was perhaps most starkly manifested in this country during the Civil Rights March, where hundreds of thousands of protestors in Washington, D.C. demanded equal rights while surrounded by century-old monuments that symbolize freedom.

“Places take on a symbolic meaning ... and when something happens in that place, being there, bearing witness, all those kinds of things matter to a lot of people. They want to feel the marking of the place and experience its history,” argues Dr. Don Mitchell, who teaches cultural, urban, and historical geography at Syracuse University.

In recent years, Mitchell has watched as the primary form of advocacy has shifted into the digital realm (think #hashtivism). He admits that while social movements born online can disseminate information at an unprecedented rate, that by no means negates the power of public demonstration.

“The visibility that’s possible on [Twitter] is very different than the visibility of being out on a street or in a park," Mitchell says. "The communication that happens on Twitter is a lot more instrumental, but simply being there is more effective. You feel like a part of something. People feel that in their guts."

By definition, these congregations only happen in extreme circumstances, when the vulnerability of a city—of a society—is most evident. The physical aspect of these demonstrations is a tangible way to reclaim control, if only in a symbolic context.

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