2019: When city streets became protest sites

The last edition of this column every year summarises trends across cities and urban planning across the world. This year, however, trends in the built environment and living environment pale in comparison to what happened in cities and towns across the world: The urban space turned into a site of spontaneous and electrifying protests against governments.

The trends worth taking note of across the world are many. The developed world’s cities obsessed between driverless cars and cars, rarely expanding the framework to imagine car-free cities; a few cities like Brussels, London, Berlin, and Paris made the concession on the World Car Free Day and closed parts of cities to cars this September.

The dangers of climate change and rising waters were brought home as Venice battled with its worst floods in half a century, 70% of its historic centre remained under water, and its tourist attractions suffered damage of nearly $1 billion. The threat faced by coastal cities – including Mumbai – was crystal clear this year.

There were debates on how urban planning must segue into the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and studies on increasing income polarity and increasing wage gap in cities. Smart cities attempted to become smarter with more technology leading to arguments over individual privacy and capacity of the State to monitor/control behaviour; the Smart Cities mission in India went below the radar but tech-driven surveillance hit a new high with Face Recognition Technology controversially used in commercial spaces.

Beyond these trends, the year will be remembered for cities as sites of protests. Hong Kong; Lebanon; Ecudaor; Catalonia in Spain; Sucre, Tarija and Potosi in Bolivia (where President Evo Morales resigned following weeks of protests), San Antonio, Concepcion and Valparaiso in Chile all witnessed massive protests on their streets resulting in overturning of austerity measures or continuing of freedoms and so on.

India, it seemed, would buck this trend as the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party secured a larger mandate this summer even as the economy stalled and social tensions rose, but December brought protestors out on the streets in cities and towns across the nation. Lakhs of Indians have protested and the numbers are rising; some governments like in Uttar Pradesh have come down hard on them. The issue was Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government decision to amend the Citizenship Act and Home Minister Amit Shah’s linking of this Citizenship Amendment Act with the imminent National Register of Citizens and continuing work on the National Population Register.

The abrogation of Article 370 and clampdown in Kashmir had seen protests earlier this year but they were muted, the Triple Talaq and women’s entry into Sabarimala had brought people out on to streets but these were small groups. The CAA-NRC issue saw a different quality of protests – spontaneous, voluntary, often unorganised, led by students and young people, starting from universities and spilling into streets, large cohort of Muslims who would be affected but also large cohorts of non-Muslims.

Together, the CAA and NRC will affect not only Muslims but other marginalised and document-agnostic groups such as tribal communities, landless and nomadic groups, women, and migrants. As lakhs continued to protest across cities and towns in largely peaceful rallies and demonstration-marches with the tri-colour flying high, Modi and Shah were forced to explain themselves if not completely backpedal. In the confusion, they contradicted their earlier definitive assertions of applying CAA-NRC. Mumbai’s historic August Kranti Maidan, among other locations such as Ambedkar Udyan and Dharavi’s streets and more, turned into protest sites.

The public square or city centre (or streets) turning into places of protests and encounters between people and power is an old urban truth since the time of Greek Agora or Roman Forum. Public spaces such as squares and streets serve multiple purposes and
one of them is for citizens to gather and demonstrate – and at time even face death by the State. Revolutions have started here; they have also been crushed here.

Governments and urban planners do not plan spaces and streets for protestors, but as HK and India – among other cities – have shown this year, public spaces and streets is where freedoms continue to be fought

Trends in urbanism are unlikely to capture this stirring dynamic between citizens and governments in city spaces, but it is the peak trend of 2019.

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