The Bill of Rights of the New Hampshire Constitution, Article X, reads:
[Art.] 10. [Right of Revolution.] Government being instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security, of the whole community, and not for the private interest or emolument of any one man, family, or class of men; therefore, whenever the ends of government are perverted, and public liberty manifestly endangered, and all other means of redress are ineffectual, the people may, and of right ought to reform the old, or establish a new government. The doctrine of nonresistance against arbitrary power, and oppression, is absurd, slavish, and destructive of the good and happiness of mankind.
They’re not alone. The idea goes back to China’s Zhou Dynasty in 1122BC, and now lives in the founding documents of numerous states across America. With the right to revolt against your government comes the First Amendment to the US Constitution, which gives us the right to free speech, worship, and assembly. People need a place to demonstrate to their elected officials that they are unhappy with their decisions. Given the rising and apparent (as well as sad) rise of “Free Speech Zones“, as planners this becomes more and more critical of a consideration: where should we put public parks and other open spaces?
Before we consider the place of the open space, we must first consider that the space can and should exist in the form of something other than a regionally governed Metroparks system, a state park, or national park. Bodies of water (while may be used for public assembly, but shouldn’t be regarded as a primary source of doing so), roads (people don’t like their roads blocked up by protestors) and other areas are also inappropriate. The people need to demonstrate in a way where they can be seen by the general public, but not take up space which should and is used by other means.
In many realms, corporations have done their part in making sure that there are adjacents parks or plazas near their buildings as part of a “social responsibility” contract with the city, ZBA, or whatever governing body in exchange for a site plan approval, zoning change or variance. However, these are also improper places for public protest, as private bodies can block people from their property if for no other reason than to remain a-political in the eyes of the public.
Naturally, there are arguments against parks and open space within dense urban cores: property not being used to its full potential, the chip at the tax base, the anti-development of business and commerce as well as a home building are all opposition to the open space.
But it can be done effectively.
If your tax base is strong enough, you won’t miss a few acres for a park. In Washington DC, the open park space between the Potomac River and the west lawn of the Capital building has served as an all too appropriate spot for numerous marches, protests, and some of the most important moments in American history. Adversely, even with Central Park in New York, people still line Wall Street in Protest.
Public open space does much more than enhance the urban experience and give people a place to play. It is a method for keeping your government in check, maintaining the natural checks and balances between citizen and government. The DC example is phenomenal because not only is it a beautiful public space for people to enjoy, but it goes right up to the capital steps, allowing for instant communication between the people and those who represent them.
Open space is a responsibility the government has to its people, and should be treated and protected as such. Crafting well placed public space which compliments the right to assemble and protest. It allows for the people to remind the policy makers what their true feelings are, and advance change as a civilization. Some change happens gradually, while other change hits us like a ton of bricks. Regardless of how it starts or how quickly it grows, it always does so through a gathering of people. It has been a staple of our country since the Boston Tea Party.
The first amendment is our right to revolution, and public open space is another way that as planners, we can help to enforce the ideals that the power comes from the people.
People should not fear their governments, but governments should be afraid of their people. Public space reinforces that, so let’s do our part for open space and parks in our urban areas.