The City as Democratic Tool

The city hasn’t seemed this fragile, nor this important in awhile. When terrorists struck Parisian on November 13, they struck the public realm, spaces people cherish as essential aspects of urban life: concert halls, stadiums, outdoor cafés and restaurants. Spaces deemed safe, where people gather, exchange ideas, share the communal fabric of urban life.

The city hasn’t seemed this fragile, nor this important in awhile. When the video of a Chicago police officer shooting and killing a young black man was released November 24, it chilled a city and was expected to spark riots. The latter hasn’t happened, but many Chicagoans have taken to the streets demanding accountability. These protestors are taking advantage of social media to spread the word, but they’re also taking advantage of an old school tactic to get their message heard: publicly disruptive protest.

While the responses are dramatically different, the public realm is playing a key role and an important one. While the attacks in Paris ignited a global effort to tackle ISIS/ISIL and plunged France into a state of emergency, the peaceful protests in Chicago come as a sigh of relief for many worried about more violence. In both cities the public is back in the streets. Some to protest, others just to live their lives; the unconcerned public has been inconvenienced; unrelated protest have been silenced. Cities are tools for democratic change by virtue of their essentially shared character, their publicness, and we need to protect that quality of our urban world. How the public use cities, or are forced to use cities, in these two examples stand as lessons for how we manage them in times of crisis big and small.

In Paris, many (are rightfully) questioning the pertinence of the government’s three month long state of emergency, which significantly increases police powers and limits freedoms like collective gathering and protest. France is of course known for it’s political protests and strikes, but what made the timing of these attacks important to consider is shortly after them global leaders would be gathering for the Paris Climate Conference (COP21) to hash out an international plan to slow the impact of climate change. It’s a ripe opportunity for the city famous for its protests to strike.

While protests occurred two weeks ago in front of important monuments shutdowns occurred in Paris. A march through the city was called off. Resistant marchers formed a human chain along the intended route to protest the ban on protests as well as slow action on climate change. Another protest featured lines of empty of shoes symbolic of the people unable to protest because of the restrictions on public gatherings. Over 200 arrests were made as well by what French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve descriped as “‘small minority’ who were bent on making trouble,” according the to the Los Angeles Times.

In Chicago, protests went ahead. They’ve blocked traffic off major streets in Chicago’s downtown and on Black Friday, the most important shopping day in the USA, protestors shut down traffic and disrupted shopping on Michigan Avenue, the city’s premier retail strip. Whether people liked it or not, the message was heard loud and clear. And on Wednesday, protestors blocked traffic outside Chicago City Hall and near the state of Illinois’ Chicago offices. All of this adjacent to Chicago’s beloved Christkindlmarkt. All this came a little late though. The actual shooting took place in October 2014 and is widely believed to have been covered up by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to protect his reelection for mayor in February 2015.

This is the power of protest. They’re defiantly taking over spaces seen as sacred, such as the Place de la République in Paris, where many memorials are in place for the victims of the November attacks, because they’re still public. They’re taking advantage of the fact that the public realm can’t be closed off in a democratic society and reinforcing that understanding even in the face of security threats. They’ve forced leaders into even more precarious (and telling) positions. They’re reminding us of the power of public protest in the public realm, a feature that is thoroughly urban.

The events in Paris and the events in Chicago are reminders that we can’t forget the significance of cities in our world and the power they offer the public if we learn how to utilize and protect them as tools for democratic change. Even in the face of terror, we can’t let our cities be closed off to protest, to public gatherings, to public life, to the voices of the people. When humanity gathers together great things can happen. Cities are a testament to that as is public protest. They go hand in hand.

Cities are old, much like collective government and both are truly becoming products of the modern era. They’ve both become bigger, more influential, more nuanced, and more complex. And cities are as important tools for democracy as ever. They offer the capacity for people to meet and interact, share ideas and, organize. They can’t be closed off like malls or subdivision and private estates. They’re shared. They’re for the public and by the public (for better or for worse). They’ve become so important for government, culture, and economy that any disruption can be widely felt. This feeds the power of collective gather, protest, and civil disobedience in cities.

For many in Paris, protests at the site of memorials for the attack’s victims was “shameful”. But isn’t shutting down public protest also shameful?  “The overwhelming majority of those assembled were nonviolent and peaceful,” said Brendan Cummings of the Center for Biological Diversity in a telephone interview to the Los Angeles Times. “But many wanted to march rather than stand still. For them, climate change is the most urgent crisis facing the world, and for the government to ban all protests was highly problematic.”

Cities are tumultuous places, but also puissant democratic tools that facilitate public gatherings and people power. In a New York Times report from November 17, Liz Alderman describes how the Eiffel Tower, such a potent symbol of Paris, a city so representative of what cities aspire to be, “was adorned with the Latin words ‘Fluctuat nec mergitur,’ the ancient slogan of Paris, which translates to ‘it is tossed by the waves but does not sink.'” These words are meaningful to so many cities and should perhaps be taken as a slogan for the concept of ‘city’ as whole. They seem fragile, but they’re important public tools and public spaces and we musn’t allow them to be stripped of these roles.


Chicago’s Path to a Pedestrianized City Center

Chicago’s history of pedestrianization is mixed. The troubled State Street mall still haunts contemporary efforts in spite of a handful of successes. Recently a number of transportation efforts and proposals have re-ignited a conversation about where, when and how to pedestrianize Chicago’s streets. The seedlings for a bigger pedestrianization have already been planted. A dense, concentrated core and flat landscape with transit access are important ingredients for pedestrianized cities and to an extent Chicago has it all. Now is the time for advocates and planners to really start putting concrete ideas forward; actual proposals that can get off the ground.

Most recently, John Greenfield over at Streetsblog Chicago reported on the government of Oslo’s proposal to pedestrianize its city center. While he makes it clear that he isn’t “advocating for an Oslo-style ban on private vehicles in downtown Chicago” he does discuss the need for a well-rounded and impactful conversation about a decrease in car infrastructure in the Loop.

“The city has already made some positive steps in that direction by repurposing asphalt in [the Loop] to make room for forward-thinking transit and bicycle projects [like the Loop Link],” Greenfield said in the article about Oslo’s plan. By converting even some traffic lanes to non-car uses makes streets safer and encourages more cycling and walking.


A transit mall in Angers, France. Source:

This includes the under construction Loop Link BRT, which is converting car lanes to bike and bus lanes as well as planning other concepts to lower car use in the Loop such as a congestion charge. That aside, it really shouldn’t be all that difficult to effectively pedestrianize part of Chicago’s Downtown in the next few years, even if it doesn’t include transit malls or pedestrian only streets (although those should be considered).

I have my fingers crossed the Loop Link and new bike lanes are well received. In the case they are, I firmly believe the city could ride that wave and therefore rapidly increase the number of bike lanes and bus rapid transit paths  downtown.


The under construction Loop Link BRT will introduce new BRT and barrier protected bike lanes to Chicago’s Loop. These new transit improvements will increase travel times east-west along Randolph, Washington and Madison and north-south along Clinton and Canal.

To start, new routes should be built on Adams and Jackson between Michigan and Clinton/Canal in addition to the Washington and Madison bus lanes. Both streets connect the east side of the Loop with Union Station and support 10 bus routes at various points. The same must be done along State (which supports 9 bus routes) from Roosevelt to Division (at least) and also Dearborn between Congress and Walton. Painted bus lanes like that along Dearborn, much like painted bike lanes, have limited efficacy, because they neither command respect nor have the infrastructure to prevent other road users from blocking them.

Not one of these projects should go forward without including cycling infrastructure either. The model to follow is the one being used along Washington, which features barrier protected bike lanes (BPLs) between the bus lanes and the sidewalk.

Bike infrastructure shouldn’t be dependent on bus infrastructur though. Downtown Chicago has numerous streets that could support new BPLs. Using anecdotal experience on Chicago’s downtown streets, I estimate that upwards of 20 miles or more of new bike infrastructure (and specifically BPLs) could be successfully introduced.

Yes, there are costs to these ideas, but they are more manageable than the costs of building new rail or road infrastructure. For example, 25 miles of BPLs would cost around only $3.5 million using an estimate from the Chicago Tribune that BPLs costs about $125,000 per mile. It would costs $150-$450 million to build 15 miles of new BRT paths in downtown Chicago based on average per mile costs estimates from Daniel Kay Hertz and the Amateur Planner blog. Some of these costs could be lowered by coordinating infrastructure construction projects and funding from downtown congestion charges. Building all this over 5 years would costs about $30.8-$90 million per year. Considering London earned over $222 million with its congestion charges in 2008 revenue can clearly be found.

These are accessible changes that serve ambitious future plans from Greenfield’s suggestion to pedestrianize portions of Washington to ideas to pedestrianize North Michigan Avenue or a return of the State Street pedestrian mall. BRT would complement these changes well, provided needed transit access. A new transit mall along State, a pedestrian and bike zone with center running BRT paths has more chances of success now than when it was first attempted. I’d even suggest turning Monroe into a two-way transit mall from Michigan to Wacker, thus better serving the Jeffrey Jump BRT.

Although some minute segments of roads might get pedestrianized, it’ll probably be quite some time before Chicago sees major pedestrianization. In the interim getting a large system of bike and bus lanes is vital to pedestrianizing Chicago’s downtown core. Financially, this is a tenable solution for the city and can easily be implemented. It’s also pretty much agreed upon, that this is the best and most practical solution for Chicago at this time. Now it’s a matter of making these ideas a reality and fleshing out what this new Loop will look like.