Places That Matter: Zuccotti Park Before / After / Now

Before Zuccotti Park there was Liberty Plaza Park. Liberty Plaza took its name from its bordering street, Liberty Street, in Lower Manhattan. Brookfield Properties owns the site, and through an extended public process transferred the development rights to the adjacent block on the north side of Liberty Street. The site became the subject of a City Planning Commission Special Permit, with the city granting approval for the transfer and the design even though the park property remains privately owned. The original design for the park, realized in 1973 by Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill, dealt with the sixteen-foot change in grade from Broadway going west to Church Street by having a stairway drop eight feet from Broadway to the park, which then extended as a flat surface to another stairway dropping another eight feet to Church Street. There was a bosque of trees and seating throughout. An unfortunate effect was seen from Broadway, the park appeared to be a hole, or a depression; while from Church Street, it looked like an imposing mound, or a hill.

The tragic events of September 11, 2001 destroyed Liberty Plaza Park. In the aftermath, the site became a staging area for rescue workers: a first aid center, a rest stop for first responders, and the gathering place for daily assignments to police and firefighter units. Following the cleanup, one year later, Brookfield suggested that work proceed with all possible haste to restore the land to public use. The design was accelerated, zoning approvals secured, the budget set, the contractors selected, and the art program initiated, all within a three-month period. Careful attention was paid to previous uses in the park: 25 chess tables, over 1,000 linear feet of granite benches, a canopy of 57 honey locust trees, and over 500 in-ground lights were arranged to facilitate both casual and formal day and nighttime use. The grading within the park now slopes uniformly at 2.5 percent, so that the maximum grade change from Broadway and to Church Street is only three feet. A curving geometry allows a walk through the park, from Broadway to Church Street, without a single step to navigate. The accelerated time table, the flexible use of space, and the spirited response of all participants were critical to the renovation of the park, which was renamed Zuccotti Park in 2006 in honor of John Zuccotti, formerly chairman of the New York City Planning Commission, first deputy mayor of New York City, and currently chairman of US Commercial Operations, Brookfield Properties. The project, realized by the architectural firm of which I am part, Cooper Robertson, also won the 2008 American Institute of Architecture (AIA) National Honor Award for Regional and Urban Design.

On September 17, 2011, the Occupy Wall Street movement (OWS) took possession of Zuccotti Park. The question naturally arises as to why Zuccotti Park was chosen. Part of the answer is that because it was privately owned, the city could not legally forced visitors to leave. The architectural answer lies beyond the obvious proximity to Wall Street itself, as there were numerous other candidate parks close by. There are several compelling reasons to suggest that the choice was not accidental. A survey of nine protest sites across the country (Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington DC, Chicago, Denver, Oakland, and Los Angeles) reveals an eerie commonality among them, including adjacent uses, size, and physical context.

Not surprisingly, all nine protest sites are within a two-block walk from the cities' financial districts, and seven of the nine sites are visible from City Hall.

Equally predictable is the immediate proximity to rail transit stops in all nine cities. They range from eleven stops in Chicago to a single one in Denver, but most with multiple stops. Clearly, mass transit access was a critical factor.

It appears that small size was another key determinant in choosing a site. Zuccotti Park is the smallest of the nine sites, at three-quarters of an acre, while the largest is City Hall Park in Los Angeles at 3.6 acres. This constitutes a strikingly different strategy from the large-scale protest sites in the Middle East and in China, but is in line with the political dictum of "always hold your meeting in a room that is too small."

Another common characteristic is that the sites tend to be surrounded by large, tall buildings. These protective walls provide enclosure; similarly, tree canopies provide further protection from prying eyes and supply a much-needed cooling effect in too-warm weather. The combination of tall surrounding buildings and layers of trees contributes to the idea of each site as a refuge. Moreover, if these sheltering devices are common, so too is the urge for exposure to the media. So views into the space, rather than from it, serve the purpose of presenting even a small gathering of protestors as a vast crowd for maximum media effect.

So therein lies a curious conflict. Zuccotti Park was designed to maximize the personal, intimate, small-scale activities afforded by an urban oasis. Yet, it has been called upon to broadcast a very large-scale, public message to the world. It has served both equally well.

This essay was originally published in Beyond Zuccotti Park: Freedom of Assembly and the Occupation of Public Space (New Village Press, 2012).