Paris is in the international spotlight as the city hosts the U.N. Climate Change Conference during a time of mourning after the November terrorist attacks upon the city. As representatives from nearly 200 nations came together to negotiate an agreement for a more sustainable future, their citizens participated in organized demonstrations on public streets and in civic spaces around the world to pressure world leaders for action on climate change.
The collective demonstrations stand in contrast to the “silent protest” staged in Paris by activists who were responding to a ban on mass gatherings after the attacks. A sea of empty shoes, arranged in neat rows on a public plaza, provided powerful imagery of activism at work.
On December 3rd, I joined hundreds of my fellow Angelenos at a Climate Change gathering in downtown L.A.’s Pershing Square. As I listened to politicians, public health advocates, and union representatives argue for action on climate change, I also observed that places like Pershing Square are designed for such rallies and protests to take place.
From the Boston Tea Party of 1773 to the Occupy Wall Street protest camps in New York City’s Zuccotti Park, our country has a rich history of providing its citizens with places for public assembly and free speech. In a redesign of New York’s Union Square in the late 19th century, Frederick Law Olmstead—recognized as the father of landscape architecture in the U.S.—and Calvert Vaux designed a park for “the public requirement of mass meetings.”
I do wonder about the future for such civic spaces. As we deal with terrorism at home and abroad, are we headed toward less support and tolerance for public forums? Despite the current atmosphere of concern and fear, people will continue to find passion for a cause and will “take it to the streets,” no matter the original intent of the design for the place.