Urban Spaces: Politics and Protests


Crystal Cheng

As we usher in the new year, polarizing political views and tense geopolitical relations are an ever-present reality that is affecting public urban space morphology.


“Black Lives Matter” mural painted on the pavement as protestors take to the streets. Photograph by Julien James


As we usher in the new year, polarizing political views and tense geopolitical relations are an ever-present reality.  Be it global protests for racial justice and gender equality, protests for autonomy and independence, anti-lockdown protests or climate strikes – our physical environment is hugely affected. Urban space is a place of convergence between people of a community expressing a set of common values, allowing them to tolerate differences while participating in collective living. Urban spaces are also a form of movement, expression and democracy. Since urban design plays a direct role in shaping the built environment, it has always had a political dimension (on top of social, economic, etc). As Mitchell Kapor famously quoted, “Politics is architecture, and architecture is politics”, and so an urban space moulds urban life and can either prohibit or foster civic participation. Hence, amidst civil unrest, public urban spaces take center stage in affecting those in power and securing social reforms for the oppressed.


In recent years, there is a spatial shift in relationship in the age-old tussle between urban spaces and politics. For a long time, urban spaces were planned as traffic corridors to keep people from gathering in uncontrollably large numbers. Historically, the ruling class and political systems erected (ivory tower) architecture and built landscapes to express its power and values. Today, it is the public urban space that builds or beats down on a country’s political system. In the last decade or so, the rising trend in civil unrest sweeping across the globe (Brannen, 2020) emphasises the need to re-evaluate the role of digital politics. Often, mass movements are networked through social media before spilling over from the cyberspace and materialising in the mass occupation of streets and parks. How does the inter-reliant digital and physical dimensions of social movements affect urban space morphology?


Bricks, bamboo poles and railings fashioned into makeshift barricades during the 2019 Hong Kong protests. Photograph by Kin Cheung


Protests in Plaza de la Republica changing the image of Mexico City. Photograph by Santiago Arau


Social movements are acts of questioning the role and nature of power in society, and “space is fundamental in any exercise of power” (Foucault, 1984). In an ideal world, public urban spaces can mediate between conflicting needs in society, offering a collective hope for a better future. As they continually evolve over time under different social, economic, and political influences, public urban spaces need to somehow be part of creating a mutually respectful, win-win situation between different stakeholders so that “we the people” can be afforded a full experience of safe dialogue and active citizenship. Perhaps we will also need to find innovative and inclusive ways to create virtual platforms where residents can congregate responsibly, operating in complement with the traditional public urban space.


Click here for more spaces of social movement manifestations around the world.

Click here for a travel risk map that assesses political violence, social unrest and pandemic impact.


US-Mexico border wall. Courtesy of Future Architecture Platform


Imagined US-Mexico border wall with a series of seasaws between fence slats. Courtesy of University of California Press



About the Author

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Crystal is an aspiring landscape architect and urban designer at the National University of Singapore. She is passionate about designing cities for high levels of liveability and understanding how cities interact with their environment at the macro and micro scale. In an ideal world, Crystal believes that all systems should be concerned with achieving a sustainable balance and resilient design in the face of climate change.