Urbanists play an important role in city protests

Last week, CityLab published a piece by Chilean journalists Juan Pablo Garnham and Nicolas Alonso connecting the Metro fare hikes in Chile to the structural instability and state oppression that the country’s residents have mobilized to protest over the last few weeks. When I first saw the headline about Chilean protests under the CityLab banner (and before seeing the authors’ personal connections to the struggle), I expected a milquetoast effort to connect current events to CityLab’s consistent coverage of innovations in transit. Something about how equitable access to transit is fundamental to running a peaceful, functional city. What I got instead was a deeply generous account of how urbanists might understand the interconnectedness of social policy at the city level and its effects on civic responsibility and political action.

Garnham and Alonso led readers to consider how the policies we often fine-tune through technocratic, incremental reforms also feed into issues of public trust, democratic agency, and governmental accountability. What’s new about this strategy for storytelling is that most urban reformers don’t talk about direct political action in this interconnected way. Academic urban planning circles are much more primed to engage with the concept of incrementalist reform than they are to talk about the direct connection between transit hikes and deep-seated civic unrest. But this kind of discourse — the kind that illuminates the threads between urbanism and real political action — taps into an underlying story about how we view democracy in cities, and who drives those democracies to change.

The closest approximation of direct action in new urbanist circles is the practice of tactical urbanism. Tactical urbanists have found that making incremental improvements to the built landscape across a city can bring advocates together with local residents to prove the feasibility of infrastructure improvements. In beautiful displays of unity and mobilization, toilet plungers can become bike lanes, parking lots can become parks, and crosswalks can become playgrounds. These performances exist at the intersection of urban planning and art, and therefore can reach a wide audience, sometimes even touching the hearts of lawmakers who see it within their power to support or even fund long-term improvements that tactical advocates have demonstrated.

In Chile, Lebanon, and most recently New York, protesters are also reshaping the urban landscape. Just over a week ago, Chilean students led “massive evasions” to demonstrate against urban policies that weren’t serving the people. Not only were students calling for more affordable subway fares, but they were also exposing the voicelessness of Santiago’s poorer residents, who, activists said, are consistently overlooked in policy decisions about the city’s future.

The week before, in Lebanon, protesters took over Beirut’s landmark buildings and reclaimed public spaces that had been cordoned off for decades after the civil war by religious party leaders. Once opened, activists and artists used these new public spaces to show films and host parties, showing the government that people could come together in these buildings if they were only made available. As the LA Times reported last week, the protests were the first time that Beirut’s residents had felt at home on the city’s downtown sidewalks, in areas that they saw as “meant only for the rich”.

Credit: Gothamist

So where do tactical urbanism and direct protest actions overlap?

New York may be the next hotbed of urbanist action to grow into full-on protest. Over the last year, advocates have spoken out against Mayor DeBlasio’s empty commitments to pedestrian safety as drivers to continue to severely injure and kill cyclists and pedestrians in New York streets. Advocates have called for the city to commit to protected bike lanes rather than painted lanes to improve road safety for pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers, but cars continue to double park, illegally cross, and broadly disobey road rules that are intended to work toward the Mayor’s Vision Zero goals.

Although this fight began in urbanist communities for transit and road safety, communities like #BikeNYC have begun to organize and mobilize people to actively document and report wrongdoings on streets and in bike lanes. With support from city employees who have published open data on road violations, advocates can track which drivers are behaving badly and publicly shame them. In the long-term activists hope to make the government enforce road rules and invest more significantly in New York’s infrastructure to make it a safe and sustainable city free of cars. Although gathering online to push back against bad drivers is just a first step, the collaboration between technocrats, advocates, and real community members is promising. It’s not only an effort to make streets safer but to end the hegemonic ideology of car-based city infrastructure, and build a more equitable and open system of city mobility. New York’s story suggests that we might be able create real political change based on principles of urban reform.

The story is changing even now as New York’s residents begin to mobilize against the NYPD’s “fare evasion crackdown”. Last night, close to a thousand protesters came together in Brooklyn to protest the police’s harrassment of people of color on the Subway and criminalization of poverty. Like in Chile, the transit system’s inequities are not just problems for urbanists who want better city infrastructure, but for people who need equal access to affordable public infrastructure to live and to thrive.

As one might notice in watching New York activists jump the subway turnstiles, the most obvious difference between tactical and activist reform strategies is the legality of the protest effort. But legality is a poor standard for evaluating a movement for justice. Legal restrictions on civic action have historically been leveled against poor or black communities, and not against, shall we say, more privileged users of public infrastructure.

In my experience working on urban policy reform, I’ve seen that public officials and public servants are deeply guided by fear and assessments of potential risk. City governments are low-risk environments (something internal reformers are trying to change). What this means is that those who sit inside of city halls looking out, who don’t really engage with the people, are always assessing who might be the biggest threat. Through this lens, it’s easy to point to urbanists as “nice reformers” and protesters as “mean ones,” but, as we’ve seen in the protests in cities these past few weeks, the lines between tactical and real political actions are thinner than we might think.

If these strategies aren’t united under the same umbrella of democratic reform, they run the risk of being used against each other. Corrupt actors in government have always benefited from fractures between “radical” activists and “reasonable” activists. Urbanists might view protesters as “too aggressive”, language that is often used to stereotype people who are fighting for their rights as “rabble rousers”. And activists may not be aware that there are advocates in urbanist communities who have the strategic tools and skillsets to leverage data and technology for political reforms. But the two worlds can work together if urbanists and activists can understand the shared principles at the core of their movements.

Urbanists must look to political movements to understand their role in social change. No reform in a city landscape can be apolitical — if urban policy reformers decide who they represent and do so intentionally, they will serve the represented, and in all other cases, they will ultimately serve to uphold existing structures of power. Likewise, political protesters can use strategy, tactical demonstrations, and artistic performance to demonstrate that there is a better way, that another vision is not only necessary but feasible.

Politically, urbanists who fight for safer , more sustainable cities, an end to car culture, and a right to equitable transit, are within the ecosystem of activists who fight for climate justice, racial justice, labor rights, digital rights, and the rest. And when the moment comes to choose how we’ll fight for the rights of our cities, to decide whether it’s too radical for us to show up, we should look to the words of Assata Shakur. As she said in her open letter to Pope John Paul II, “I advocate for revolutionary changes in the structure and in the principles that govern the United States. I advocate for self-determination for my people and for all oppressed people inside the United States. I advocate for an end to capitalist exploitation, the abolition of racist policies, the eradication of sexism, and the elimination of political repression. If that is a crime, then I am totally guilty.”

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