Following the raid on Occupy Oakland a couple weeks ago, I was struck by the vacuum left in my downtown/uptown Oakland neighborhood, where protesters had been camped out for weeks. All that remained of Frank Ogawa Plaza – or Oscar Grant Plaza, as protesters called it in memory of the young man killed by BART police 2 ½ years ago – was a lawn strewn with shredded protest signs.
Steve Harrison and Paul Dourish distinguish between space and place in design, describing space as an opportunity or collection of affordances. Place, however, is “rooted in mutually-held, and mutually available, cultural understandings about behaviour and action... We are located in space, but we act in place”1
What remained from the raid was a mere space – some empty benches, a lawn in close proximity to City Hall, a mess to be cleaned up – but Oscar Grant Plaza was a place with its own cultural practices and a fledgling community that interacted with the larger neighborhood. (The Frank Ogawa Plaza that preceded Oscar Grant Plaza was also a place, with city workers eating lunch, homeless people, and groups of teenagers congregated around benches, but this too was gone immediately following the raid.)
Occupy Oakland protesters had transformed the plaza. They planted gardens and held public meetings, sometimes using the “human microphone” technique where the crowd repeats a speaker's words at intervals so everyone can hear them. They hung out at local cafes and visited Giant Burgers on nights when the neighborhood might otherwise be deserted. They danced, cooked and held classes, and created structures like a school tent, a kitchen tent, and an art tent, to support their activities.
All of that, that place, seemed to disappear when police dismantled the camp. But then Oscar Grant Plaza came back, with its tents and handmade signs – different, yet the same – within several days' time.
What to make of a transient place?
Urban design strategies like PARK(ing) day create intentionally transient places by co-opting a space and reinventing it temporarily as a new place.
Like the field sites the computer/social scientist Jenna Burrell describes as entry points to sociocultural networks2, both PARK(ing) day events and Occupy camps are entry points to a network of sites online and offline, real and imagined. PARK(ing) day imagines parking spaces as public parks. The Occupy movement imagines public spaces as micro-communities and sites of public protest.
Temporary urban design is built on the premise that places have memories. When a temporary vision of a place fades away, the memory remains to influence future engagement with the place.
Since Occupy camps don't have clear ending points like PARK(ing) day, their temporary nature is more ambiguous. Tents, and even the word “occupy” suggest temporarily taking up space, but for how long remains uncertain. One thing the Occupy Oakland example makes clear however is that authorities could not bring the temporary vision of Oscar Grant Plaza to an end by dismantling the site in downtown Oakland.
What was not visible when returning to Frank Ogawa/Oscar Grant Plaza following the raid was the sociocultural network that remained. It is this network, together with material design and affordances, that defines a place. When the network persists, the place can be redrawn and re-imagined.
2 Burrell, J. (2009). The Field Site as a Network: A Strategy for Locating Ethnographic Research. Field Methods, 21(2), 181 -199. doi:10.1177/1525822X08329699