In December of 2010, a Tunisian street vendor set himself on fire in front of a municipal office to protest the government. Aged 26, Mohamed Bouazizi had been selling fruit when the police confiscated his merchandise. Thus, as he burned in the city square, Bouazizi sparked a revolution. In the month that followed, the people of Tunisia brought their frustrations from the privacy of their homes to demonstrations in urban spaces, eventually forcing then-president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali to step down.

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A portrait of Mohamed Bouazizi, a local hero, displayed on Avenue Habib Bourguiba ©Photo courtesy of Christopher Furlong via Getty Images
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Protesters climb the City Hall Monument near the prime minister’s office ©Christopher Furlong via Getty Images
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Protesters march with a banner bearing Bouazizi’s name ©Antoine Walter via Flickr

Just like Bouazizi had recognized, public urban spaces are often ideal sites for protest. In addition to being visible to the general public, these squares are often surrounded by important government buildings, lending a symbolic quality to revolts. However, just as they attract protestors voicing their frustrations, public spaces have also been historically used by repressors to silence dissent. In this way, urban spaces are not simply neutral containers for social movements, but an important tool to either kindle or extinguish burgeoning revolutions.

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Protesters climb the Prime Minister’s office in Government Square ©Christopher Furlong via Getty Images

Through its design and the artefacts it displays, public space can influence people’s emotions by conveying a lived experience. As such, it’s common for repressive states to use “public” squares as a way to propagate agoraphobia. Consider one of the most famous cases of public state repression: the Tiananmen Square Massacre in Beijing. When students gathered in the square in 1989, they were claiming the front entrance to the Forbidden City, a traditional symbol of the Chinese Empire’s prowess. The government’s response: martial law and indiscriminate killing. 

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Protesters congregated in Tiananmen Square ©Jacques Langevin / Sygma via Getty Images
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A young protester on a hunger strike in Tiananmen Square ©Stuart Franklin via Magnum Photos

Today, the immense square is oddly desolate, devoid of benches to dissuade public gatherings, and is considered “the opposite of public space.” By transforming this 44-hectare square into an empty and threatening expanse, the government reminds its people of its intolerance for revolution and the swift backlash to ensue should anyone test its rule. 

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One of the most famous protest photos in the world: a lone man blocking the tanks on their way to Tiananmen Square ©Bettmann Archive via Getty

So what happens when the people reclaim oppressive “public” spaces? Taking place in 1960, the Greensboro sit-in campaigns exemplify citizens’ successful use of space to send a message. On February 1, four black students from North Carolina A&T College sat at a Woolworth’s lunch counter politely refused to leave. As the seats were reserved for white customers, the students used their occupation of the space as a challenge to its racist preconceptions. By the end of April, over 50,000 students had participated in a similar sit-in; by July 1960, Woolworth’s desegregated and other stores began following suit.

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Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, William Smith, and Clarence Henderson during their sit-in at Woolworth’s lunch counter ©Jack Moebes/@ News & Record, Greensboro
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Today, Woolworth’s lunch counter can be seen at the International Civil Rights Center & Museum in Greensboro ©Skip Foreman via AP Photo

As displayed by these two case studies, public spaces are not just backgrounds to social movements, but chess pieces to be maneuvered. In terms of the physical city’s role in social movements, there are three characteristics that can enhance or dissuade revolution from emerging: density, size, and diversity.

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When cities have high densities, it’s easy for residents to congregate in large numbers at central locations. With the Arab Springs, for example, revolt was facilitated by the fact that three-quarters of Cairo’s population lived within nine miles of Tahrir Square. In this way, the principal site of contention was easily accessible for all who wanted to participate; even if the roads were shut down, protesters could easily travel on foot.

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Protesters gather at Tahrir Square in Cairo against increasing police brutality under then-president Hosni Mubarak ©Wikimedia Commons

The size of a city is another facet to consider. When cities have larger populations, this allows even smaller minorities to gather sufficient numbers for their social organizations. This can explain why radical youth movements thrive in cities. Sunrise, for instance, is a youth organization that coordinates events like marches and Wide Awakes, a practice inspired by pro-abolition demonstrators who banged pots outside officials’ windows. “We tried signing petitions,” reads their website. “Now we’re taking actions they cannot ignore.” In other words, cities with large populations provide smaller demographic groups with the numbers and visibility that they would not get otherwise.

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Sunrise protesters outside Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s office in New York ©Drew Angerer via Getty Images
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Sunrise protesters demonstrating outside U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s residence ©Sunrise Movement DC via Twitter

Finally, diversity aids social movements by exposing otherwise distinct groups to one another, hence forging new ties and uncovering shared interests. When activists then broker relations between local and more distant allies, the result is a larger, intersectional band making louder demands. This phenomenon was seen following the Tunisian revolution, for example. Among other modes of expression, the grassroots initiative Tsaw’Art united artists, dancers, and musicians of different backgrounds to fuse the political dimension of the streets with art. Their slogan epitomized this idea of reclaiming public space: “la rue aux artistes,” or the streets of the artists. 

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As the main sites of contention’s expression, cities’ appearances can offer valuable insights into their power structures and priorities. In Paris, for instance, the layout we see today was partly redesigned by Baron Haussmann to facilitate troop movements through the streets. In Los Angeles, the lack of a distinctly-recognizable centre and few walkable distances make demonstrations difficult to stage. In London, protesters are often barred from entering onto an ever-growing number of POPs (privately-owned public spaces). Despite these examples, today’s politically-active climate has re-popularized the subject of urban spaces and their use by different entities. Hopefully, this resurgence will bear new developments in creating more inclusive and democracy-oriented cities.

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Author

Faith Ruetas is a 19 year-old student currently hovering along the borders of diverse disciplines. From English Literature to Computer Science and Philosophy to Architecture, she hopes that this next period of academic exploration will bear some niche, invigorating career into which she can throw herself.

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