Deep-rooted tensions surrounding race and American history erupted into deadly protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the weekend. The events laid bare the violent racism of white supremacists–and served to highlight the role that public spaces play in politics and society at large. The way civic spaces are designed and governed shapes the activities that take place inside them, from political demonstrations and community gatherings to simply having a picnic.
Charlottesville, a progressive college town in a red state, became a flashpoint because two of its downtown parks are named after Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, and each contained statues of their namesake Confederate generals. To some, the statues represented southern heroes; to others, the statues celebrated slavery. When Charlottesville renamed the parks and announced plans to remove the statues, white supremacists from across the country interpreted it as an effort to denigrate their history and staged a rally to protest the city’s actions and use Charlottesville to amplify their platform. Anti-fascist protesters staged their own demonstration against the white supremacists and the two factions became violent, which eventually led to dozens of injuries and, after one supremacist intentionally drove his car into a group of pedestrians, the death of one protestor.
Charlottesville’s public spaces were the catalyst for this racial-fueled violence, but the city is hoping that both parks can become harbingers of a more just and equitable future through a redesign. Charlottesville is currently in the process of redesigning and remaking its civic space through a Downtown Parks Master Plan, which is accepting requests for proposals (RFPs) until August 17.
Of course, the design of a park alone won’t be enough to solve the problem of institutionalized racism no matter how brilliant the concept may be. But the way designers approach the historic sensitivities in Charlottesville–like how to address slavery, civil rights, and the enduring effects of white supremacy in the new park designs–could help other cities rethink the public spaces where citizens gather, protest, and celebrate. The RFP represents an avenue for action for designers questioning their role in the fraught political, social, and cultural landscape of 2017.
Last year, Charlottesville convened a committee to figure out how to tell “a more complete history of race” and affirm “the City’s commitment to truth, freedom, and equity.” In December, the committee presented a report to city council with recommendations like relocating Confederate monuments, building new monuments to the often-suppressed history of African-Americans, and creating new wayfinding and creative placemaking interventions.
The Downtown Parks Master Plan will focus on Emancipation Park, the one-acre downtown park where a controversial statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee is sited and the nexus of multiple supremacist rallies, including this weekend’s; Justice Park, a half-acre park located nearby that includes a statue of Stonewall Jackson; and the four-block stretch of Jefferson Street that connects the two public spaces. The RFP calls for redesigning Justice Park to include a memorial to Charlottesville’s enslaved population while retaining its function as a community gathering space. It also calls for redesigning Emancipation Park, with versions that both include and eliminate Lee’s statue. Finally, the redesign will also replace a plaque that marks where the city’s slave auction block was sited and visually connect both parks to the street that runs between them.
The goal of the master plan is to give these public spaces a richer narrative that addresses history more holistically than it does today. But beyond that, many of the details of the plan depend on how designers interpret the RFP: The parks could be made more or less friendly to large assemblies, they could become more restricted in terms of movement, they could allow for easier policing and surveillance, and they could better protect pedestrians from vehicular terrorism. (Main Street, the Lawrence Halprin–designed pedestrian mall that James Fields drove his car into, killing one woman and injuring dozens of people in an act of terrorism, is not part of the RFP.)
The city’s eventual goal to affirm “truth, freedom, and equity” doesn’t just depend on the design of the parks alone, though. In the end, that will also be determined by the policies that govern them–for example, what activities are allowed, how they’re permitted, and how stringently they’re enforced. As CityLab points out, open-carry laws created a sense of fear and intimidation in Charlottesville’s public spaces, which limits freedom.
What designers will really have to juggle is what a public square should embody. Today parks must walk a fine line, balancing liberty and safety. Democracy and public space go arm in arm. Tahrir Square, in Cairo, helped usher in the Arab Spring. The National Mall hosted civil rights demonstrations in the ’60s and ’70s and, more recently, the Women’s March. Yet in Emancipation Park, long-simmering tensions boiled over into violence. Without spaces for people to safely and freely assemble, it’s harder to exercise those rights, and this is where designers and architects can make a positive impact. A park’s design won’t solve systemic racism–but it could facilitate the movement that gets us there.
View the RFP here. Proposals are due August 17.