CED and the Occupy Movement

The Occupy Wall Street movement, and its cousins that have emerged in cities across the country, arrived on the UC Berkeley campus last fall in the form of “Occupy Cal.” Students set up small camping tents outside Sproul Hall in front of Savio Steps, named for the famed free speech activist, Mario Savio. Police, in a scene involving protester-police conflict and violence, ultimately removed the tents stirring controversy across campus.

In the wake of the tent removals, College of Environmental Design students led by students from the Department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning hung a large sign reading “OCCUPY PUBLIC SPACE” in full view off Wurster Hall’s 10th floor. To draw attention to the role of design in social change, they also created a unique intervention intended to provoke and amuse.

CED and Occupy Enlarge [+]

Since tents in front of Sproul Hall were banned, the students filled two tents with helium balloons, floating them on long lines, along with an enormous sign reading “OUR SPACE”. Marching down from Wurster Hall in an exuberant procession, they tethered the hovering tents and sign high in front of the Sproul Hall doors. I too was out there in the cold with our students, their floating tents, and their comic signs such as “Frank Lloyd Fight!” We had an animated conversation about social justice and the future of public universities like Cal.

CED and Occupy Enlarge [+]

Back at Wurster Hall, some of the students, enrolled in a graduate seminar on public space taught by Professor of Architecture Margaret Crawford, were eager to engage in a discussion about the role of public space in social protest and change. We immediately decided to organize a panel discussion, creating a locus for more serious, academic dialogue.

So, on December 1st, students packed the new Wurster Gallery to hear faculty members Ananya Roy (City & Regional Planning), Walter Hood (Landscape Architecture & Environmental Planning), and Margaret Crawford (Architecture) and MLA graduate students Rob Tidmore and Chris Torres debate questions of design activism, the meanings of public space, and the serious social, political and economic issues raised by the Occupy movement. It was an electric evening of tough questions and rapid-fire exchanges among panelists and participants.

The challenges that our university and college face are rooted in the political and economic dynamics driving the Occupy movement. The entire campus community understands this. Today’s students and faculty all know that activism is a vital and cherished part of this university’s heritage, but knowledge about the strategies and tactics that actually build movements must be learned anew. We must always begin with the substantive issues, and thus along with other Cal Deans, I have worked to organize a series of campus-wide forums to explore issues of social inequality and opportunity, taxation and citizenship, the economics of higher education, and the public character of public universities. Student and faculty organizations in turn are rapidly beginning to map out strategies for mobilization and identifying political pathways for change.

The creative and powerful intervention designed by CED students went viral, astounding people all across campus. I realized anew how proud I am to be part of the College of Environmental Design and to have the chance to help CED build on its historical legacy of activism, and fight for a more just future.

PS: You can see local news coverage of the CED student intervention online.

CED and Occupy Enlarge [+]
CED and Occupy Enlarge [+]
CED and Occupy Enlarge [+]
CED and Occupy Enlarge [+]

Photos: Alex Schuknecht, Cary Bass, Darryl Jones

Berkeley in the World

This is a time of unprecedented globalization. While globalization is not new, the scale and intensity of global flows of capital, labor, innovation and information is perhaps unmatched in the history of the world-system.

Equally striking is the emergence of global social movements, global campaigns and global alliances that seek to address issues of poverty and inequality. Indeed, the start of the 21st century has been marked by the globalization of responsibility for the human condition – from human rights to environmental crisis to disease to extreme poverty. What is UC Berkeley’s role in this bold, millennial moment? This is precisely the question that led to the recent establishment of the Blum Center for Developing Economies on campus. How can UC Berkeley train the next generation of global citizens to tackle, in inspired but responsible ways, the world’s pressing problems? In doing so, how will they better understand their place in the world and thus remake the future of America?

But it is important to ask yet another question: what is the role of urbanists, urban planners, urban designers, architects, environmental planners and landscape architects at such a global moment? I do not ask this question simply because urban planning is my professional calling card. I believe that this question has urgency for all those concerned with globalization, its promises, and its stark inequalities. After all, the 21st century will be not only a global century, but also an urban century. Cities are, and will be, a key space of economic development and of material and symbolic citizenship. The “right to the city” will be one of the most important human rights of the 21st century. What role will urban professionals, scholars and activists play in articulating this right to the city? How, in particular, will CED train the next generation of “insurgent” architects and planners?

Let me simply share one lesson that I draw from some of the classes, seminars, studios and workshops that a few of us have been organizing and leading in CED: the act of planning and designing is fundamentally an ethical and political act. We can claim we are neutral technocrats or well-meaning artists, but neither guise fully captures the extent of our impact or paradoxically the impotence of our plans. We produce space. And we do so in a world that, despite what the gurus of globalization would have us believe, is not flat. The production of space thus implicates us in the structural logic of urbanization and urbanism; in the political fields of power and powerlessness; and in the unequal, and often unjust, landscapes of cities and regions. The ethical question is how we choose to participate in the production of space. Are we the consultant who plans the redevelopment of a slum and in doing so fiercely opposes evictions, the one who negotiates resettlement and compensation for slum-dwellers, or simply the one who follows our client’s script? Are we the planner who is commissioned to create a new city for a global elite and in doing so insists the city has to be open and inclusive for all classes, the one who revels in the high-style architecture we can design, or the one who rejects the commission?

During this past semester, I have watched students in the Nano City Super Studio admirably struggle with these issues. How will they convince their clients that a vibrant and just city is one whose value derives from more than simply valuable real estate and global connectivity? How will they make tangible and visible these alternative forms of value, those that are less commodified and lucrative than property capital? How will they plan for the villagers who live on the edges of the site, who are subsistence farmers and eager to sell their land and stop farming? Will they, as benevolent planners, preserve these villages as quaint relics of a lifestyle that the villagers themselves refuse, or will they imagine a different future for the relationship between city and countryside? Most important, the students have known that the answers to these questions are not technocratic or aesthetic but rather ethical and political. While they have been able to utilize their technocratic and aesthetic expertise, this expertise has been shaken and disrupted by the sheer social reality of the site, that encounter between the villager aspiring for a better life and the UC Berkeley student desperately desiring to do the right thing. The site haunts the studio and this is the way it must be – this always tense ethical and political relationship between expertise and social reality, university and community. We mediate this relationship as “double agents,” often complicit in the production of space but also hoping to subvert the cruel calculus of this production.