Solving Cities

Occupy DC's thriving mini city [video]

Occupy DC's thriving mini city [video]

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Occupy DC protesters turned a sleepy park into a lively replica city. Find out how good design made it possible.

In Washington, DC's McPherson Square, Occupy Wall Street protesters have created a mini city complete with unique neighborhoods, a main street, and zoning for residential and public space.

The protesters have brought this area in the urban core to life.

"In a city that has struggled to sustain vibrant urban enclaves, the anti-consumers protesters have in fact created exactly what many urban planners strive for: a feeling of ownership, engagement, and spontaneous adaptation," a Washington Post video describes the encampment. Check out video below:

But all public spaces are not created equal. Lydia Depillis at Washington City Paper argues that Occupy DC protests have had very different results because of the design of the public space they occupy.

Consider McPherson Square. Its layout mimics the form of a city: There’s more earth than concrete, which allows a separation between the “residential” areas and paved spaces for transit and discussion. The mature trees serve as landmarks—“Meet by that oak,” you might say—and as shelter from both the sun and the rain. It’s surrounded by restaurants, residences, hotels, and offices that are all open to the street, creating a natural circulation of people who stop and stay a while on their way to lunch or appointments or the Metro.

On the other hand, the site of the other Occupy DC protest was nowhere near as vibrant as McPherson Square because of the design of the space.

Freedom Plaza, despite nearly indistinguishable ideology and infrastructure, is a dramatically different environment. ... Freedom Plaza, built in 1980 to mimic the original plan of Washington, is totally inhospitable. There’s no place to sit, with only the barest excuse for a bench around the edges. Grassy spaces are microscopic, forcing tents to bleed out onto the concrete. Communal services, like food, medical supplies, and media, are clustered in a corner; the central walkway between them is narrow and divided by a staircase, which makes it difficult to navigate. There’s a somewhat awkward segregation between the occupiers and the homeless, who cluster in a walled-off circle of benches on the northeast corner, rather than integrating with the crowds the way they do on McPherson Square.

It's a great micro view of how our cities play out on a macro scale. Those cities that have designs with amenities close to where people live, along with a mix of housing, office space, and retail in close proximity have vibrant communities. But cities that are suckers for cul-de-sac and don't easily connect people to the places that frequent, well they're more Freedom Plaza cities.

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Tyler Falk

Contributing Editor

Tyler Falk is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. Previously, he was with Smart Growth America and Grist. He holds a degree from Goshen College. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure