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Camille Wildburger
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Camille Wildburger

Dimensions of Dissent: Urban Landscapes as a Democratic Network


Becoming a Place of Dissent

It has long been understood that the city morphology centralizes public squares to symbolize the importance of shared communal values and democratic public dialogue: Think the Greek’s Agora to the City Beautiful Movement.

Still held true today in public squares is architectural, civic representation of authority, and citizenship recognized through standard spatial design techniques, such as “monumental size … distinctive architectural decorations, or imagery that makes extraordinary mythical historical claims to antiquity or authenticity for authoritative buildings; and their clustering, emphasis by axial approaches, or simple elevations above their surroundings that sets them apart,” says Dell Upton in the 1998 book Architecture in the United States. At the intersection of built form and societal representation, political consensus can be reached or disputed.

Thus a dimension of American democracy can be defined around citizen participation and its public spaces. Due to the democratic ideals that civic space can represent architecturally, the choice of location for protest must reflect these ideals and use mass occupation as a stark contrast. The presence of symbols of state power and civic identity is highly considered for the selection of a protest site. These material symbols may be buildings, statues, monuments, or a civic plaza.


Protest event analysis, the act of protest as design, and the physical dimensions of dissent provide a unique perspective for landscape architects, urban designers, architects, and other interconnected disciplines such as sociology and psychology. The awareness of the role of space in enhancing the impact of protest demonstrates the growing complexity of citizens who carefully design and plan dissent, and, more often, those who design and plan our urban spaces. Mass occupation through protest is increasing in scale, scope, and frequency. Considering these socio-political shifts, recent protests in civic spaces have taken on new dimensions; spatial dialogues between citizen and state cannot prove powerful without those gathering en masse to express their dissent and pressure those in political power for a response.

Understanding the social, political, and spatial influences behind participation in protest proves useful when focusing on the spaces used for the largest single-day protest in U.S. history, the 2017 Women’s March.


How do the urban landscapes of the 2017 Women’s March in the United States embrace the potential for socio-political

spatial dialogue within the urban context of 21st-century American cities, specifically Dallas-Fort Worth?

In 2017, while a graduate student studying landscape architecture, I participated in the Women’s March in Dallas, which occupied City Hall Plaza in downtown. It was an inspiring moment and one that made me curious about the ways that urban space, design, and architecture contributed to the power of protest marches. That curiosity led me to write a thesis that analyzed the routes of women’s marches in cities across the United States. As we continue to observe the centennial anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, guaranteeing and protecting women’s constitutional right to vote, protest, and occupy public space remain a fundamental part of the democratic process.

Through my research and cognitive mapping methods, I’ve found a few things that both confirmed and challenged my expectations. The destinations, routes, and architectural context all vary. However, among the differences in these marches are strong parallels.

I synthesize five core dimensions of dissent in this research:

(1) the procession through the urban landscape of the city itself. There are three modes of procession: consecutive, orthogonal, and circuitous. An understanding of the modes of procession during this protest event helps define civic engagement as contact with the physical, material, and temporal nature of public space.

(2) Almost all of the marches end at a large open public park or plaza with some form or another of an architectural symbol of power and democracy.

(3) The space of gathering often embraces long axial approaches and are dotted with institutional and civic buildings. The spaces support a degree of symbolic projection, whether iconography, monuments, large-scale government buildings, and/or design quality. Most commonly during the appropriation of these spaces, there lies a

(4) focus of occupation. While it might be expected that the foci are symbolic and sensory expressions of the trends and moods of public culture manifested in these spaces of gathering, these six cities suggest a more complicated picture in that some of the foci were selected for their functional purpose as opposed to their symbolism.

Lastly, I define the fifth dimension of dissent as, (5) the edge of dissension. Crowd density increases as the distance between the crowd and the focus of occupation decreases. The crowds are drawn to these symbolic projections of power as the dense occupation of the spaces embracing the foci provides a stark contradiction between power and people. The intention of this research is to better understand the role landscape architecture and urban design play in supporting and advocating for the ideals of public democracy during times of civil unrest.

Two Cities, One Cause


On Jan. 21, 2017, about 4 million people worldwide stepped out of their daily routines and onto the streets. People of varying backgrounds — young and old, diverse in race and ethnicity, women and men, varying in religious faith — came together in hundreds of thousands upon the urban landscape in solidarity. “Human rights and dignity of each person should be protected and our planet be safe from destruction” (Womensmarch. com, 2017). Women’s rights, reproductive rights, LGBT rights, gender equality, racial equality, and worker rights were the intended conversational foci in the occupation. More than 600 cities worldwide held affiliated marches on this day, reports say. The 2017 Women’s March was one of the largest coordinated, single-day protests in recorded history and the largest in the history of the United States to date.

I look specifically at examples from the 2017 Women’s March to explore possible commonalities in the kinds of urban spaces that provide a platform for large-scale, peaceful demonstrations. In appropriating urban spaces, symbolic or otherwise, citizens practice their “right to the city,” D. Mitchell says in the 2014 book Right to the City: Social Justice and the Fight for Public Space, and in this way their demands are not only heard but become measurable with the visualization of occupied space and its dimensions within an urban landscape.

To explore the spatial implications of the urban landscapes and designed public space during protest, I look closely at the design of the route, mode of procession, space of gathering, occupational focus, and edge of dissension of the marches. When utilizing these dimensions to analyze the marches in Washington, D.C., New York City, Seattle, and three other

U.S. cities, I found it inspiring to see how the routes revealed different values and varying ways of using public space.

I discovered that in the context of the 2017 Women’s March, two linked landscapes matter: the procession through the city, offering visual opportunity for remote viewers and media coverage, and the spatial form of gathering, with both the crowds and the space occupied. There are many overarching similarities or dimensions to the design of these protests, but each event proves unique in its ability to adapt to its urban landscape. Each city offers a unique urban fabric met at the intersection of local geography, cultural history, and economic influences for the practice of democracy.

In Dallas and Fort Worth, where the marches were smaller, the story shifts again. The analysis of the spatial framework for these planned protests may suggest ways for landscape architects and allied professionals to understand and advocate for the relationship between designed public space and the ideals of public democracy and democratic speech.

Spatial Dialogue


Here I map the 2017 Women’s March processions through the urban fabric of Dallas and Fort Worth and observe two of the three types of processions: consecutive and circuitous. Consecutive processions characterize how the procession weaves through the city, as with Dallas’ march. Beginning at City Hall in downtown, marchers paraded through East Dallas where protesters ultimately joined in a rally at the Communications Workers of America Hall at the Bryan Street and Washington Avenue. In this respect, the image of a 2-mile-long procession or protesters becomes a core dimension of dissent.

A particularly unique mode of procession I found in my research is that of a circuitous procession. In Fort Worth, thousands of women and supporters began their 1.2-mile route parading on Main Street, winding through downtown streets to the Fort Worth Convention Center, then winding back to where they started —at the Tarrant County Courthouse, which served as both the genesis and destination of the march. This proves unique in that the respective urban space is continually occupied as a dimension of dissent.

The visualization of the relationship between the physical structures shaping the urban procession, the architectural focus, and the defined use of space characterize the relationship of the march to its surrounding urban context. There is one principal land use that proves essential and recurring in each march; significant to the profession of landscape architecture and urban design is the recurring use of large, open public spaces, usually a park or plaza, as the symbolically occupied space.


I define the space of gathering as either the genesis or the destination of the routes of each march. Before and after occupying the streets during the march, participants of the 2017 Women’s March coalesced and proclaimed themselves at such a space. In Dallas, marchers assembled at City Hall, a seven-acre expanse with unthwarted views of the city. Dallas City Hall Plaza nobly lies beneath the late modernist City Hall building designed by I.M. Pei, FAIA, and is a spatial symbol of the civic culture and identity of Dallas.

Fort Worth marchers both began and ended their march on the Tarrant County Courthouse campus, about 2.4 acres. It serves as the terminus of Main Street and sits high on a bluff of the Trinity River apart from the city beneath. These urban landscapes provide protesters with ample open space that embraces the architectural condition of governance and power.

In the case of Fort Worth, it is important to note that the protest route had to avoid Sundance Square, which would seem like a natural space of gathering with its generous scale and its ability to host large outdoor events like ESPN’s College Game Day. Though it appears to be public space, it is in fact privately owned by Fine Line investments and is managed by Henry S. Miller Co.


Often the architectural condition and symbols of power are government buildings and civic landmarks. Within these spaces of gathering and among the architectural conditions lies the focus of each occupation. To no surprise, both Dallas and Fort Worth marches directly focus on paternalistic civic buildings. Dallas City Hall’s enormous scale and aspirational power are rooted in its intentions to push Dallas’ urban identity into one of progressivism and change. (See Kathyrn Holliday’s “Building Democracy in the Fragmented Metropolis,” in the Summer 2019 edition of Columns.)

The Tarrant County Courthouse stands 94 feet tall on the bluff of the Trinity River, evoking an image of power with its looming stature above its city. Additionally, it is modeled after the Texas Capitol in Austin, the state symbol of democracy and power. These monolithic architectural symbols of power provide a stark contradiction to the image of masses of citizens engaged in democratic dissent beneath them.

According to news reports, 5,000 to 6,000 marchers assembled in Fort Worth in solidarity; as march organizer Ritcher stated: “We’re not marching against something. We’re marching for what we are for.” The location of the architectural focus, be it a civic building or landmark, is directly correlated to the density patterns illustrated. Through these comparisons, one is able to initially understand how the built environment might shape a collective group. The built form in this case acts as an intervention to a free forming crowd; the negative spaces, the streets and parks, become a celebration, an avenue for political choreography and spatial communication.


I define edge of dissension as the boundary or limits of the thousands of participants as they are shaped by the urban landscape around them. In Dallas, about 5,000 to 8,000 participants rallied at City Hall and took to the streets to march and be visibly and physically present. As I recall, having participated in the march, the crowd grew so large that it was virtually impossible to hear the unamplified speech from the organizer.

Dimensions of Dissent


Once we agree that public space is necessary in a democratic society, the question then becomes, how should our public spaces function? Public spaces could have one or more of the following features making it an ideal place for protest: (1) it is openly accessible; (2) it consumes collective resources meaning it is owned by the public sector; (3) it has a common impact. These dimensions allow for a stage for the performance of public roles (Parkinson, 2015). Every public space should not have to perform every public role. However, when understanding the role landscape architecture and urban design play in supporting and advocating for the ideals of public democracy during times of protest, it is important to look at the degree to which a city provides space for a variety of experiences and performances of democratic process. Context plays a large role in what makes a designed protest successful in any given place. By learning and experimenting, testing assumptions and responding, and by putting its citizens and users in the center of the process, we are performing democratically.


Analyzing the Black Lives Matters marches in Dallas and Fort Worth provides an avenue for reflection on how contemporary forms of dissent are changing the way we, especially designers, perceive public space and its politics.

It is essential to democracy that cities provide ample open spaces for public use even during times of civil unrest. Currently, many of these spaces contain symbols of ruling power, religion, or civic identity that contrast with the looming masses of dissident citizens.

We as landscape architects, architects, and urban designers can build our design insight by understanding how urban landscapes frame political opposition when marchers and protesters gather to raise their voices. We need to think critically about our design decisions and placements and their impact on the greater social system. As urban designers and 21st-century creatives, we belong among the contributors and facilitators who provide expertise between concept and the built world.

Now is the opportunity for urban design advocacy. Design can support the role of public protest in cities by reflecting the symbolic and functional roles that urban landscapes play in creating theaters for public democracy. The discussion of the landscapes of protest is crucial to the advocacy of American democratic ideals within the design profession.

If we can agree that physical space — public and/or open urban space — is necessary in a democracy, the next questions are: What are the characteristics that define these spaces and how should our public spaces function?

To be an ideal place for protest, a public space should have at least one of these features: It is openly accessible; it is owned by the public sector; it has a common impact. These factors create a stage for the performance of public roles.

There may not be one right way to design a democratic public space. But it is important to understand the role that landscape architecture and urban design play in democracy during times of protest. And just as important is the space that a city provides for the experiences and performances of democratic process.

Camille L. Wildburger, ASLA is a job captain at GroundLevel Landscape Architecture.