Protest Urbanism:  A Review

by: Rupal Rathore

Photo courtesy of MONU Magazine

Working as a volunteer in Himalayan villages, I came across the term dhandak which is the traditional form of protest in the hills; an accepted practice in the pre-democracy era to expose unjust or corrupt law-enforcers and bring to the king’s notice local grievances. That gets me thinking whether urban protests in contemporary India can be viewed as a phenomenon in public space that accelerates communication between citizens and the state and demands acknowledgement of pressing issues that would otherwise move at the lethargic pace of bureaucratic procedures. The current atmosphere of political tension and polarized opinions renders the scene, especially in prominent cities, unpredictably complex and volatile. Consequently, active spatial engagement, collective sentiment and the sheer force of gathered numbers has made apparent newer forms of Protest Urbanism; the urgent theme that MONU 34 begins to address. This issue is a curation of interviews and articles that analyze ‘visibility’ in the public sphere during an event or movement, adopted methods of protest and the role of design (or lack of) in aiding (or disrupting) public dissidence. The photo archives are a set of evocative images that themselves become powerful tools of protest urbanism when circulated or displayed. In “The Different Scales of Solidarity”, drawing is used as an effective visual technique to document the layers of protest by zooming-in on the city, the neighborhood and the street to capture dissent and the demand to ‘reclaim the city as a co-created space’.

What is visible in the public realm can be extended beyond the physicality of space into conversations and discussions that ‘occupy public consciousness’ as proposed by Jeffery Hou, as well as the digital expanse where ‘media is a vehicle to hold the state accountable’. Sometimes, protests can condense into ‘moments of monumentality’ that linger on in public memory and continue to be associated with the place where they occurred, often shaping human relationship with that space and ‘conjuring shared sentiment’. While “Toppling Monuments” lets the listing of such ‘moments of mobilization, artistic interventions and creative acts of resistance’ tell a story of its own, “Not Set in Stone” asserts that ‘violent action against the past (by heaving colonial statues to the ground) is a sign of ideological revolution’. A symbolic attack on racist histories and figures of violence is one way of declaring what is no longer to be tolerated, among other strategies that are employed to make an impact.

Ambiguous Standards of Protest” elaborates on how ordinary objects like cloth hanger, bra, house keys and others are ‘recontextualized’ to acquire new meanings when multiplied in large gatherings to convey a message quite literal or be used as a shield like the yellow umbrella in Hong Kong. Blocking the streets and hijacking logistics is perhaps found to be the quickest way to grab the attention of authorities, put forth demands for the most basic requirements like public transport or affordable health care and force decisions that prioritize the community over tourists. Negotiating the city that is designed with the male end-user in mind, “The Street is Ours” challenges the insensitivity and incidents of harassment with a more visual, yet physical method of protest; coller, which is a political act performed by women to ‘reclaim a place that has been confiscated’. Alternatively seeking direct action, Hans Pruijt states in his interview that squatting results in immediate benefits that solve the problem of not finding a house to stay, and in the process, organically forms committees that are inclined to urban activism.

This brings us to the question of whether public spaces can be designed to serve as ideal protest grounds or will that become ‘a catalyst for rejection since adhering to appropriate use goes against the notions of strategic disruption required for gaining political attention’ as argued in “The Empty Plaza”? Nurul Azlan highlights the reverse to be true where design can repel protesters, like the ‘big boulevards in Paris cutting through the medieval urban fabric, making it difficult to build barricades and easier for the police to disperse crowds’. “To-Be Urbanism” draws some interesting inferences from a series of significant protest movements that have been initiated in Hong Kong since 1997, each of them triggering ‘urban agencies to emerge, evolve and continue the protest energies on a renewed dimension’. It is then these episodes themselves that give the design impetus for future struggles, like the 2019 protests introducing digital technology to empower the movement with real-time tracking apps that helped dodge police suppression and reinforced the ‘be-water’ strategy.

MONU 34 is a valuable record of the current efforts for more inclusivity, viewed through an urban lens, capable of evoking public reaction and activating a balanced discourse around the subject that is highly relevant to us all. Like the people of Porto reacting to the re-branding of their city that failed to represent its social heterogeneity, most aspire to be identified in the ‘contested urban space’ and fight for the right to participate in creating the world they wish to inhabit. The reader of this issue can’t help drawing parallels with the contextual realities and experiences of one’s own country, city and locality.

About the writer
Rupal Rathore is an architect and writer based in Udaipur, India. She graduated from Balwant Sheth School of Architecture, NMIMS, Mumbai in 2018. She practices design under her studio The Native Platform and is currently engaged in landscape interventions around Matrimandir, Auroville.Here's a link to my other publications:


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