ASLA Oregon LANDbytes NOVEMBER 2011 Feature:
This Land is Your Land
By Rebecca Wahlstrom
While watching the drama of Occupy Portland recently unfold in our downtown parks, I started to think about public spaces and how we use them here in Portland. Portlanders love their city; public spaces are heavily used for events like farmers markets, outdoor concerts, and food fests, just to name a few. A big part of what makes Portland rank so highly as a livable and vibrant place is that a lot of people get out and enjoy the heck out of their city. Imagine parks with picnickers, kids on the playground, and a hard-core game of horseshoes going on in the background. Now start walking down a city sidewalk and you might see plazas filled with people enjoying the sun, or playing music, and bikers resting next to fountains flinging water into the air. Different people using the same space in different ways and yet co-mingling in such a way that makes that space an exciting place.
For more than a month, Chapman and Lownsdale Squares were utilized in a very different manner than the picture I’ve painted above, as they had become the alpha and beta camps of Portland’s portion of the Occupy movement. Wanting to know more about the original intent and historical use of these Portland parks, I found that they were originally designed in the late 1800’s to be gender specific: women and children in Chapman Square, and men were to gather in Lownsdale Square. Interesting… Then I looked up the two parks on Google maps to see what they had to say: a comment made in June 2011 said of Chapman Square, “Makes walking through the city so much nicer.” A comment made of the same park in October of the same year stated, “Occupy Portland. We are the 99%.” Those two comments show a big change in tone and utilization of the park in a few short months.
Being a conscientious reporter, I did further research and found an interesting 30-minute program that highlighted ideas on public space by people like Don Mitchell, Galen Cranz and Sharon Zukin (sadly, no landscape architects were included). http://blog.papertiger.org/2011/10/07/open-to-the-public/
They raised some interesting points about public perception and regulation of spaces, like Zukin saying that the public regulates what happens in public space by either accepting or disapproving of behavior in those spaces, and that public space has to provide for all of the needs of a population. Recent events have shown that a breaking point can be reached in public perception, especially when a public park is no longer truly public anymore, but a city within a city. Lownsdale and Chapman parks were no longer serving the needs of the general public, but serving the needs of a small portion of that public. After more than a month of protesters living in these two parks, the mayor ordered that the Occupy movement move on, requiring them to carry on their quest in a different manner.
Americans hold their “right of the people peaceably to assemble,” as they should, but does that mean that they have a right to occupy a public space for an indefinite amount of time while fighting for a political and social ideal? Is the inconvenience of the occupation essential to the movement? This question is being raised all across the nation, case in point when the courts in New York recently upheld the mayor’s right to remove protesters from a public park. Occupy people will be required to follow the imposed New York park rules, just like any other inhabitant of the city. Does the right to peaceably assemble override the responsibilities we have as citizens and co-habitants of our cities? Does the end justify the means; the ‘end’ being an increased awareness and a shift in our social paradigm? Since the Athens Agora and the Roman Forum, public spaces have served as places where people could discuss business, politics, religion, and current events amongst a setting of government, temples, and commerce. Our right to freely discuss and debate issues is part of what makes our country so great; I hope that our public spaces continue to be a venue for lively and informed conversation by people who want positive change.