The Right to Assemble and the Role of Public Space

A robust, vibrant civic life relies on the availability of public spaces to bring people together. Our ability to congregate—for social interaction, community events, or political demonstrations—is a fundamental right in our democracy. This begs the question, should access to public space also be a fundamental right? The two go hand in hand, yet in today’s era of re-energized political action, many communities are finding that public spaces do not always meet demand. How can we build the capacity of public spaces to accommodate renewed political energies?

The Center for Active Design’s Assembly initiative identifies participation in public life as an essential objective to support more engaged communities. Studies indicate that local plazas provide crucial building blocks—they are the civic commons that underpin our democratic ideals.A wide range of urban designers and community advocates are recognizing this value, and are strategizing concrete opportunities for evolving public spaces. In New York City, a collective of civic leaders (including Assembly Advisor Shin-pei Tsay of Gehl Institute), have signed a letter to Mayor De Blasio focused on “Public Space for Free Expression.” Their proposal calls for a range of design and policy overhauls that would create enhanced space for congregation throughout the city.

Among many actionable steps, the group proposes expanding NYC’s public plaza program to be a more complete network of neighborhood squares. The letter also advocates for significant pedestrian improvements, citing opportunities for pedestrianizing certain streets and expanding open streets initiatives. Assembly’s original research validates the importance of these interventions. For example, CfAD conducted a 2016 survey of over 5,000 respondents that found increased levels of civic trust, participation, and stewardship among respondents who live near public spaces. Detailed survey results will be released in the coming months.

Reclaiming more public right-of-way for pedestrians can support everyday civic life and social interaction, while enhancing safety and minimizing overcrowding at rallies and protests. As the Public Space for Free Expression proposal points out, the “network of civic spaces” at the city level, “alongside public plazas, become thus not only places for protest, but also places of ongoing and sustained community participation and engagement in the everyday.” CfAD’s Assembly research is affirming that the design of our communities can directly impact civic life. The very best design solutions will mobilize residents, reinvigorate the public realm, and cultivate an invested, engaged citizenry.

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    Demographics around proposed public gathering spaces in NYC. Photo: Van Alen Institute