Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
A flash competition in New York City asks designers to come up with way to make protests stand out as they become more frequent.
It’s safe to assume the day after Inauguration Day brought the largest protests of Donald Trump’s presidency. The Women’s March brought out hundreds of thousands of protesters across America, turning cities’ parks, squares, and plazas into seas of pink pussycat hats.
It’s also safe to assume there will be more protests to come, and that they may be smaller and more dispersed around cities. That’s the argument made by a handful of design and architecture organizations in an open letter in January to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio suggesting ways the city could make its streets more protest friendly. The Van Alen Institute, one of the signatories, recently followed that up with a related question: How can New Yorkers themselves design for better protests, to make them more inclusive and accessible to the city’s diverse population?
That’s the central question behind the institute’s one-day design contest, “To the Streets,” which asked activists, designers, and people of all backgrounds and disciplines to come up with imaginative—but also realistic—strategies that community members can use to plan effective protests.
One of the key challenges, as outlined in the letter and in the competition rules, is that future protests may not be as big as the Women’s March, nor will they always be held in the most popular protest sites. In a city as diverse as New York, the protests might be more decentralized. Instead of one large protest, smaller ones may happen simultaneously in spaces nestled inside the immigrant communities most affected by the Trump administration’s policies.
The competition asked designers to find ways to link these protest sites together so that their messages resonate throughout the city and so that they stand out. If protests do become more frequent, it’s important that they don’t become normalized, says John Schettino, a fellow at the Design Trust for Public Space and one of the contest judges.
The city might be able to make these protest sites bigger and safer, and it could have the authority to pedestrianize streets like 5th Avenue, where Trump Tower is located. “The physical design of the space tends to be a top-down process that comes from the city government,” Schettino says. But then there’s the “soft infrastructure of activist design,” or how interventions and activism can temporarily reclaim public spaces.
The winning proposal, chosen out of five finalists, came from urban designers James Khamsi and Despo Thoma, who came up with the idea of using flatbed trucks as mobile platforms that act as a central point for protests. Hovering above each truck would be giant balloons whose colorful appearance would draw attention from people miles away, and whose monitors can display the protestors’ messages.
“Place matters; where it happens is just as important as what is being said, and often the two messages are related,” says Khamsi. It’s no mistake that the Yemini bodega rally in April took place in Brooklyn, where there is a significant Yemeni population. That New Yorkers took their protests to the JFK airport only made their message stronger. And the protest commemorating the second anniversary of Eric Garner’s death stayed in his hometown of Staten Island.
“We wanted infrastructure that wouldn't designate a specific place for protest, but would go to where people want to come together and have their voices be heard,” he says about the trucks. The high-tech balloons, meanwhile, link smaller gatherings together digitally to ensure that they were all part of one cohesive protest. “Critical mass is important as it adds weight to the message,” he adds.
Other finalists addressed the challenge using colored smoke plumes to make smaller protest visible to the rest of the city, or deploying speakers around the city that will play voices, sounds, and messages from a protest far away.
But Khamsi and Thoma’s project stood out to David van der Leer, executive director of the Van Alen Institute, in its resemblance to dropping pins on a Google Map. “In our minds those [balloons] can fly quite high,” van der Leer, who also judged the competition, tells CityLab. “That could be helpful in making sure that people know the protests are in a variety of spaces in addition to these big ones in Manhattan.”
“Their thinking is that disruption is a key component,” Schettino adds.