Atlantic Cities

How the Occupy Movement Changed Urban Government

How the Occupy Movement Changed Urban Government

As the dust settles on the closure of some of the major "Occupy” encampments, the question of legacy remains.

At its core, Occupy Wall Street was a place-based movement. In commandeering urban public spaces as sites of protest, the movement marked an implicit challenge to the reigning model of urban governance in which place is irrelevant.   

For decades, city officials and urban thinkers alike have been convinced that cities are beholden to the whims of mobile consumers and capital investors, who are indifferent to the virtues of any particular place and will simply locate wherever they are offered the most handsome package of amenities. Cities across the globe have viewed themselves as locked in a zero-sum competition in which the winners will be those who enact the most business and consumer-friendly policies - anything from tax breaks to zoning incentives to privatization of city services.

The Occupy movement challenged cities’ attachment to mobile capital by making place central to its worldview. In establishing flimsy tent-cities in actual urban spaces and refusing to leave, the Occupy protests mocked the idea of mobility peddled by urban officials. More than that, they implicitly advocated the notion that urban areas are places bound up with the identity of local communities, rather than disposable products in a global marketplace. 

To illustrate, contrast the Occupy movement’s commitment to particular public spaces with urban officials’ treatment of those same spaces. After years of losing business to outlying suburban shopping malls, city officials have lured middle-class shoppers back to urban downtowns with the promise of an excitement and vitality absent in the cloistered suburbs. At the same time, city officials have been keenly aware that the openness and spontaneity that make downtown spaces attractive also invite unpleasant encounters with panhandlers or the mentally ill. 

The worry is that mobile consumers will again flee to the suburbs if downtown areas are perceived as shady or menacing. Cities have managed to handle this problem by relying on mostly informal mechanisms to persuade undesirable individuals to move along – bum proof benches that are too short to sleep on, and so forth. 

This approach, ironically, mirrors the way cities have dealt with middle-class shoppers and finance capital: they are all presumed to be freely mobile and indifferent to particular places, and whether they stay or go depends on whether they are plied with the right package of incentives and disincentives. One bench is as good as another, so the bum will simply go to the one he can sleep on; one mall is as good as another, so the shopper will go to the one with better parking and no panhandlers. 

This logic breaks down, however, when an individual or group of individuals refuses to treat a specific public space with indifference, when, in other words, it decides that a particular place is critical to its being, its identity, or its conception of community. 

When that happens, as with the Occupy protests or, before that, when a group of homeless individuals took over Tompkins Square Park in New York in 1991, informal policing tactics are insufficient to protect the consumer-friendly environment city officials have so carefully constructed in public spaces. Instead, they must call out the riot police.

As city officials are all too aware, the specter of riot police itself may endanger the fragile images of cities, which are still recovering from the urban riots of years past. This explains the precarious position in which the Occupy protests have placed city leaders.  But that, after all, may have been exactly the point of the protests – to challenge city governments’ policy of catering to mobile capital at all costs.

Photo credit: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

Kenneth A. Stahl is an associate professor of law and director of the Environmental, Land Use and Real Estate Law Program at Chapman University in Orange, California, and an editor of the Land Use Prof blog. All posts »

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