This article is part of a series on the Strong Towns Strength Test, a simple method to help determine your town's strength and resilience. This series offers step-by-step guides for giving your town the test along with ideas for actions you can take to help your town grow stronger. We'll publish one article in this series every couple weeks. You can read all our previous Strength Test guides here.
The question we're exploring today is #7 on the Strong Towns Strength Test:
Of all the questions on the strength test, this one may be the most “out there.” Do you need to start a literal, on-the-streets revolution if you want to make your town stronger? Perhaps not. But we’re asking this question because it’s a way to understand whether your community has a natural public gathering place. It tells us something about the street design and organization of your town—Are your homes and businesses spread out at great distances from one another with no central location where people interact? Or are your homes and businesses clustered together in a walkable manner with a town square (or something similar)?
This Strength Test question doesn’t just reveal information about your land use and urban design, it also indicates your community’s level of cohesion and communication. If you can’t envision your neighbors gathering together in a central location, it’s hard to envision coming together to solve day to day problems and build strong towns--much less demonstrating publicly for a common goal.
Whatever your citizens might fight for, it’s clear that the way our towns are built (and what spaces the public has access to when they demonstrate) have a huge impact on what happens when our citizens take to the streets. How would your town fare if the revolution came tomorrow?
How to Take the Test
1. Start with your gut reaction. Read the question and think about what, if any, space comes to your mind immediately. Do you have a park in the center of town that is a popular gathering place? Is there a town square or main street that’s frequently filled with people? Do you have a sense of how many people it could hold? How does that measure against the population of your town? Do you have to really wrack your brain to come up with anything? That should tell you fairly quickly that the answer to this question is “No.”
2. Poll your neighbors and friends. Float this question by your neighbors and fellow residents. Does a space come to mind for them? If the revolution were calling for something they cared about, would they participate themselves--or does something in the built environment make it seem impossible? What about their children? Their elderly parents? Ask a diverse swath of people this question and see what they say.
3. Research the history of revolutions and protests in your town. Begin your research on the internet to see whether there have been any public spaces that filled this role for your community in the past. Explore town history books at your local library to get a more in depth answer.
4. Research your city’s process for permitting marches and other public demonstrations. Of course, the kind of spontaneous revolution we’re talking about might not start with a trip to city hall. But there’s a decent chance that your city has already identified a few key places that they think are safe and appropriate for a large gathering. Ask them where those places are. Ask what safety provisions and modifications they’d require to approve an event. If you don’t agree with the locations your city hall suggests, or if they’d require a ton of legwork to make suitable for a demonstration, you may learn something else about your town’s fitness for revolution.
5. Think about how revolutions move. Not every revolution will start in a central, open location. If you’ve identified a few ideal sites for a revolution, think about how a group of demonstrators might get there. Do your city streets flow towards your gathering spaces? Do you have natural routes that would be suitable for a large group of people marching (as well as escape routes if the march needs to disperse)? Are there multiple places that fit this criteria, with clear routes between them?
If you've gone through the above questions and concluded your town doesn't really have any revolution spaces, it might be time to create some.
1. Identify places that could potentially become a central gathering space. First, look at your downtown on Google Maps or on a walk. Is there a neglected park? A former town square that has been turned into a parking lot? It’s easier to start with an existing space than to create one completely from scratch. You might also think about other public events that happen in your town, however far from revolutionary they may be. Do you have a weekly farmers market in the summer? How about a neighborhood festival or concert series? Where do those take place? Could those occasionally-used spaces become more permanent town squares?
2. Talk to your neighbors and local organizations to see whether there is momentum for a more formal gathering space. Would local arts organizations appreciate a public space for community performances? Would local farms benefit from space for a farmers market? Get to know these organizations as well as enthusiastic neighbors and work with them to build momentum for a public space.
3. Approach your local government about creating a public space. You'll need a firm idea of which space that would be, whether it could feasibly become a public space, how the project would be financed (the lower the cost, the more likely to get approved and have a worthwhile return on investment) and what it would take to transform it (demolishing a building? installing benches? planting grass? etc.).
4. Foment a revolution. Just kidding. But an alternative route to approaching your local government about creating public space is to simply start using a space and see what happens. This is unlikely to work if you're trying to facilitate a weekly outdoor market, but it may work if you're interested in developing a simple public gathering area where families can have picnics and friends can meet up to walk dogs. Low-cost, easy tactical urbanism projects can turn a neglected area into a beloved place. Watch Jason Roberts' talk (above) at our recent Strong Towns Summit in Tulsa to learn more. And of course, as mentioned above, if you've got a spontaneous revolution on your hands, you're not going to be asking permission from the city government to gather anyway.
Towns with revolution-ready spaces
We'll close with some examples of towns that answer "Yes" to the question, "If there were a revolution in your town, would people instinctively know where to gather to participate?
Middle East scholar Asef Bayat described in his book, Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East , the “socio-spatial” characteristics required for a successful revolution:
- Centrality—“spaces where a mobile crowd can easily and rapidly assemble,”
- Proximity—a place with “historical or symbolic significance,”
- Accessibility—“the locus of mass transportation networks,” and
- Flexibility—“a space that is open yet surrounded by narrow alleyways, shops, or homes that can offer respite.”
These were all clearly evident at Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt during the Arab Spring. Rachel Quednau covered Tahrir Square as a protest space (and compared it to Zuccotti Park, site of the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York City) on her old blog, The City Space. She wrote:
Tahrir Square had the advantage of being a pedestrian zone within a highly trafficked area. It is encircled by government buildings, hotels, the Egyptian Museum and the American University in Cairo, drawing the attention of millions of passersby every day, yet maintaining a safe space. In addition, Tahrir had had some practice as a site of protest in years past, giving it a level of symbolic significance.
Tahrir Square might be called a modern poster-child for revolution space and, while it is not in America, we can still learn a lot from its example.
In 2011, the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison became a site for extensive protests, both inside the building and on the surrounding grounds. This was a response to Governor Scott Walker's removal of collective bargaining rights for public sector employees in a state that had historically been very union friendly and, at times, socialist. The State Capitol was a natural gathering place, not only because it is the seat of statewide power and governance, but also because it is located in the heart of the city.
It's close to the University of Wisconsin - Madison, which meant that it could draw from a politically active study body. It's also a regular public gathering space in the spring, summer and fall for the world-renowned Dane County Farmers Market. Finally, the grassy grounds and streets that ring the capitol building are a pedestrian-friendly area that is easy to get to and easy to hang out on.
Casa Grande, AZ
Strong Towns member Benj Green responded to this Strength Test question when we posed it on Slack with a site from his hometown of Casa Grande, AZ: City Hall (and the surrounding grounds). He says "City Hall is pretty central and has a nice gather-y feel." It's also on a major road and surrounded by homes and businesses, the occupants of which could easily move toward the space to participate in a revolution. Finally, it has the political significance of being the seat of local government.
Now that you've got the information on how to conduct this test, we want to hear how it goes.
Let us know your town's answer to this Strength Test question in the comments, by sharing your photos on social media with the hashtag #StrengthTest, or by emailing us.
Kea Wilson and Rachel Quednau contributed to this article.
(Top image: People flood the streets as part of the Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong. Source: 流璃)