A woman marches to the White House at the head of a group of members and allies of the LGBTQ community
as part of the Pride and Black Lives Matter movements on June 13, 2020, in Washington.

Protest Urbanism
By Bernd Upmeyer

While urban protests featured in both of our last two MONU issues – #32 on more affordable cities and #33 on the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic for cities – merely as a side topic, with this new issue of MONU we would like to focus entirely on protests as an urban phenomenon, as they appear to be used as an urban approach for change frequently and intensely these days. In a time when most activism is expected to take place in the digital realm and via social media – not only because of the coronavirus pandemic – such numerous mass-events in the physical spaces of our cities might come as a surprise, which intrigued us to such an extent that we decided to study them further. For they have become indicators and symptoms of what is wrong in our world and our cities in multiple respects. As Jörn Walter stated in MONU #32 in our conversation with him entitled “Redefining a Radical Social Market Economy”, the recent social counter-movements all over the world are related to fairer distribution of wealth and affordable housing, commercial, social and cultural spaces and transport costs. But the current global Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality and racially motivated violence against black people make clear that the challenges at stake are even bigger. That became particularly visible during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, that has made – according to Beatriz Colomina, as she pointed out in our interview in MONU #33 on “Quarantines and Paranoia” – the invisible city visible, revealing the enormous economic inequities and unequal access to health care and to education. All of that made us more than ever interested in protests in cities: the physical manifestations of today’s protests, their methods and strategies in time and space; the reasons and causes why they occur at the moment; what impact they have on cities these days; and how, when and why they occurred already in the past so as to put the current protests in a historical context.

When it comes to their physical manifestations, today’s protests take many forms and take place in different cities and countries all over world. These usually urban events have different sizes; happen in special places, which are typically public; are organised with different frequencies; happen at special times; and have different dynamics, methods, strategies, and intensities. The repertoire of protest tactics might include rallies, demonstrations, marches, ceremonies, attacks, riots, strikes, or boycotts, to name just a few. The activities of protests can occur in a large variety of typologies; reaching from symbolic, artistic, and dramaturgical activities to sacred and religious ones; institutional and conventional activities; movements in space; activities of civil disobedience that might be expressed in public nudity or other publicity stunts; as collective violence and threats; or through other activities. Protests can also take the shape of a residence or settlement manifesting itself as a peace camp, tent city or a camp for action. Protests can be destructive in the form of hunger strikes or vandalism, but also constructive as silent protests. Thus, what we would like to analyse with MONU #34 is what kind of forms, typologies, and activities the protests of our time take in cities, creating what kind of “Protest Urbanism”.

Why protests take place can have all kinds of reasons and causes. They might aim to protest against governments, military actions, religious or ideological institutions, or even against planning applications or developments in cities initiated by residents of an area – protests that are directly motivated by urban processes. They can be caused by authoritarianism, autocracy, capitalism, dictatorship, discrimination, natural disasters, political corruption, repression, poverty, unemployment, and not to forget: climate change, one of the most pressing topics of our time. However, what we are most interested in for MONU #34 are the particular reasons for today’s protests. Is it all about rising inequality and discrimination or is there even more to it? Why do they take place today with such regularity? Therefore, we would like also to dig into the reasons that lie behind the current protests in cities all over the world, generating various expressions of “Protest Urbanism”. In the end we would like to find out how cities themselves contribute to the shaping and designing of protests.

The fact that small protest activities can have big influences is shown to us by Liz Teston in her piece “… And Though She be but Little, She is Fierce!” in our issue #27 on “Small Urbanism”, where she demonstrated how transient micro-urbanisms of protest architecture can have a significant impact on our cities. During such actions, human bodies can alter public spaces through practices that challenge the arrangement of urban power and convert it into a channel of opposition, as Ana Medina argued in “Dissident Micro-occupations” in the same issue. In her explorations of dissident architectural practices, she revealed that spaces for protests are in fact not designed, but taken over by the dissidents to transform the architectural urban landscape. In larger protests the participants might interact with cities to create opportunities for a more democratised form of urban design, especially in cities where public participation in urban design and urban planning is considered to be not working or insufficient. Protests may reveal the capacity of citizens in designing the city leading to the ability to participate actively in planning and design decisions.

Public urban expressions of objection, disapproval or dissent towards ideas or actions are certainly nothing new and have taken place in cities throughout history. How centuries of protest shaped New York City was illustrated recently by Neil Smith and Don Mitchell in their book “Revolting New York: How 400 Years of Riot, Rebellion, Uprising, and Revolution Shaped a City”. In their book they clarified that protest movements like Occupy Wall Street did not come from nowhere, but were part of a long history of rioting, revolt, uprising, and sometimes even revolution that shaped New York City. From the earliest European colonisation to the present, New Yorkers have been protesting and made New York evolve through revolution creating a story of near-continuous popular, and sometimes not-so-popular, uprisings. One of the most emblematic events in the history of Western protest movements was probably the French Revolution that paved the way for modern liberal democracy and spread democratic ideals throughout Europe and eventually the world. Related to cities, it has been argued that the revolution had long-term effects in Europe leading to more rapid urbanisation and economic growth, especially after 1850. Therefore, to understand and to be able to judge the contemporary protests in cities around the world, in MONU #34 we would like to compare them with similar and equally important protests of the past.

Ultimately, with this new issue of MONU, we want to discuss not only the manifestations, methods, and strategies of today’s protests; its reasons, causes, and its impacts on cities; but also the role architects, urban designers, urban planners, and other stakeholders in our cities play in shaping, defining, and limiting protests. And although the topic of “Protest Urbanism” is related heavily to politics, proposals should have a strong relation to cities and focus on urban topics first and foremost.

Title: Protest Urbanism
Author: Bernd Upmeyer
Date: December 2020
Type: Call for Submissions, MONU #34
Publications: MONU – Magazine on Urbanism
Publisher: Board Publishers
Location: Rotterdam, The Netherlands