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Planning Cities for the Revolution: Cairo, Tehran, and Los Angeles by Alex Shams

May 10, 2011

The Arab and global audience has borne witness in recent months to massive pitched battles in the central squares of the region’s capital cities. Capturing and defending urban space has emerged as the most effective way to unseat a chosen regional despot; indeed, each revolution and protest movement has become nearly synonymous with the urban space it has occupied and spread from.

Can we imagine an Egyptian revolt without Tahrir Square? Or Bahraini resistance without the camps in Pearl Square? It has become clear that the uprisings taking place are deeply rooted in urban public spaces and that the ability of protesters to occupy and hold these spaces so as to articulate their demands has been essential for the success and spread of each movement.

Downtown Cairo, for example, was built under the design of French urban planners in the 19th century. These designers mimicked the urban planning techniques of Baron Haussman, who in the 1800’s completely demolished large swaths of urban Paris in order to construct wide boulevards the French military could rush down to suppress protests. Cairo’s Downtown was, however, constructed by the British colonists as a retreat from the traditional, crowded center of the city, and so they did away with some certain aspects of Hausmann’s plans that emphasized internal defense (as the enemy “natives” were confined to the old city adjacent to Downtown, and were restricted from the colonial city). Thus while Downtown is centered on a large square with boulevards radiating out, in between there sit many pedestrian streets and linked alleyways that lead to Tahrir Square.

Protest organizers, deeply aware of this fact, published a pamphlet outlining ways to re-enter the square, of which many were inaccessible to cars and tanks and thus were easy for pedestrian protesters to secure and cross safely. The protesters’ ability to flee and re-enter Tahrir Square safely through these pedestrian alleyways, as well as to engage in sustained confrontations in the Square’s radial boulevards, was critical to their success in holding their ground.

The success of the Egyptian protesters brings to mind the contrasting example of the Green Movement in Iran, a series of protests that reached their peak in the summer of 2009 but have continued until the present day. Tehran, the epicenter of this movement, is a city built mostly in the last 50 years according to highly modernist principles which emphasize efficiency of private automobile movement through wide boulevards in central areas and a mind-boggling maze of freeways in the suburbs that makes Los Angeles’ system seem provincial in contrast.

In Tehran, there are only a handful of squares (as opposed to mere intersections), and the city’s grid layout means that none of them sit at the center of more than two major streets. Here, protesters march up and down boulevard and clashed with the police at intersections, but there was never the possibility of actually possessing urban space in the way that sitting down on square, guarding the exits and erecting tents physically allows one to inhabit, occupy, and defend a defined urban perimeter. As a result, clashes lasted for hours during the day and night but protesters were never able to decisively take over urban space (which would have crucially allowed them to stay united, rest in tents, and defend the barricades on shifts). Meanwhile, the riot police had clearly studied how to use the urban environment to their advantage, as the designated Bus Rapid Transit lanes that run down major thoroughfares in the center of Tehran were taken over by their black motorcycles as they bypassed traffic to surround and respond rapidly to protests.

The use of public space by protesters has reminded us that protest and revolution are urban phenomena and as such are deeply dependent on mastering the physical layout of the city. Urban planning and the construction of cities are deeply political processes, and their outcomes affect our abilities as activists to articulate our demands. If the physical space of the city is designed so as to exclude protest, the possibilities for enacting long-term change are reduced.

Of the two examples of revolutions given above, which city does Los Angeles resemble more? Obviously, the Tehran example is more relevant to Los Angeles’ case. When large public protests occur they go up and down major streets, lacking any central plazas to occupy and defend, and even in our universities- the home of some of the largest open, urban spaces in the city- certain squares are deemed appropriate for free speech and others not.

Reclaiming cities for revolution is something that we as activists must struggle to critically think about because the fact is that these cities have been designed to exclude certain populations. Whether it be Cairo, where the indigenous population was initially excluded from Downtown until they reclaimed the area after independence from their colonial overlords and then again in 2011 from Hosni Mubarak, or Tehran, where in 1978 nearly 9 million people (a third of the entire country’s population) took over the streets and forced the brutal Shah to flee by refusing to fear death, or Los Angeles, where protests for basic freedom that occupied one of this city’s few truly public spaces, MacArthur Park, were brutally suppressed on May 2, 2006—we must be concerned with the city and with urban planning. It is obvious that those who oppress us are thinking about it.

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More info on activist urban planning in Los Angeles: Bus Riders’ Union http://www.thestrategycenter.org/project/bus-riders-union

Urban Planning and the architecture of Israel’s occupation in Palestine: http://dissidentvoice.org/2007/07/architecture-as-military-strategy-a-review-of-eyal-weizmans-hollow-land-israels-architecture-of-occupation-verso-2007/

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. azucena permalink
    May 25, 2011 12:37 am

    get it.

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