Photo: Gregory Han

Photo: Gregory Han

In these politically turbulent times an interest in the role of public spaces playing an important part in civic engagement within a city has been rekindled. The Women’s March in Los Angeles on January 21st was a powerful expression of political dissent, one representing overwhelming concern for the future of human rights in this country. It was grand, but I don’t have to tell you that because you were there – everyone was there (at least it seemed like it, with participation estimates in Los Angeles alone ranging from 100,000 – 750,000).

During the day of the march Metro ridership was up by 360,000 riders compared to an average Saturday. Some might complain about the stresses on transit and the resulting inconvenience it posed to non-march oriented riders, but it was only a single day on inconvenience. The benefit is now countless members of the local population have become somewhat familiar with the public transit system. Metro reports that 40,000 TAP cards were sold that day. Civic engagement and public transit go hand in hand.

Cities are weird. People are weird. And how does one expect to bask in this weirdness without exposing yourself to it. This is where the magic of cities is generated. It’s not all good nor all bad – it’s everything in between. You might catch a cold from a stranger on the bus, but you might also fall in love with the person sitting next to you after seeing the look in their eyes while they’re reading your favorite book.

Public transit is interpersonal and a shared experience. There is solidarity in ridership, with a mutual respect that you will all get “there” faster together. It is a training ground for civic participation. Danish architect and urban design consultant Jan Gehl believes modest participation in public spaces as critical requirement for society to emerge. You don’t have to do anything grand as an individual, just show up and be there – the grand gesture is collective, but cannot happen in a vacuum (although the uncanny peace of a 2am public bus is also pleasant in its own right).

So, we flooded Metro in droves, and then we occupied Downtown.

Photos: Erik Schmahl

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Photos: Erik Schmahl

I’m a student of urbanity and therefore have a love-hate relationship with streets. I love streets and for the most part, but hate cars. Everyone should take any opportunity to walk in the street, especially with all their friends. It is a simple displacement of power that feels gratifying and empowering. Large demonstrations are a great excuse to exercise this practice. Cars will honk, but it’s okay. They have air conditioning, radio and the capacity to travel at 70mph. They’ll get there.

Streets are much more interesting when they are filled with people anyways, especially hundreds of thousands of them. In these situations it is important to note how cities function as infrastructure. Sidewalks and streets become indistinguishable, a grid for movement. Parks and plazas get tested. The march gathered at Pershing Square, which thanks to Legoretta’s walls, became an almost impenetrable peep show – you could tell that something was going on in there and wanted to see for yourself, but couldn’t.

Grand Park, where the march ended, functioned rather swimmingly thanks to its tiered layout and topography which allowed for participants to fully grasp the grandeur of the rabble. The landscapes in which these events occur can have significant impact on the movements themselves. The public has the right to gather, and should, often. If these experiences are pleasant and fulfilling, then civic engagement and participation will likely increase, which can create a feedback loop to expand the public realm. It could be thought of as PR for both landscape architecture and public space.

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