My dissertation, Radical Manifest Destiny: Mapping Power in Urban Space in the Age of Protest, 1968-1988, traces the transnational People’s Park movement of insurgent park creation as a method of protest against urban renewal.
Having conducted archival research across seven states, I have broken ground by documenting more than four dozen People’s Parks created after one of the first in Berkeley, CA in 1968. Utilizing a wide range of archival collections, oral history interviews, and spatial analysis, I argue that as practices of experimental community-based urban design, insurgent place-making initiatives—such as the illegal takeover of vacant lots and the anarchist creation of free public green spaces called “People’s Parks”—at times, facilitated cross-cultural coalitions that transcended ethnic, racial, and national borders.
Linking these spaces together, my project analyzes how these parks were designed and built by coalitions, and ultimately regulated by police and bureaucracies. I argue that this medium of protest attracted diverse groups of activists, urban design professionals, and urban residents who used the basic components of these parks—landscape architecture, public art, and shared food consumption—to create a diverse community of resistance across ethnic distinctions and national borders.
The process of design and construction of People’s Parks served as a form of empowerment, a medium for memorialization, and a tool for coalition-building. By blurring the lines between public and private property ownership, People’s Parks became politically playful techniques for individuals and groups to draw attention to disempowerment and reclaim full access to American citizenship.
Historiography on postwar urban protest and cross-cultural environmental organizing is rich, yet no historical scholarship traces the significance of socialized urban green space as a method of postwar protest. Conventional narratives of post-World War II activism have largely ignored tactical urban environmental place-making as a method of civil disobedience, and, in doing so, have neglected to analyze how issues over power in urban space shaped the meanings and methods of protest from the late-1960s to late-1980s. Nestled within scholarship on utopian communalism, cross-cultural political organizing, and urban planning lies the undocumented history of public protest advocating for bottom-up or “community-based” urban design.
Despite the proliferation of guerrilla gardening, the tactical creation and reclamation of urban green space remains highly political. Ultimately, by gaining insight into how urban green space emerged as a medium for activist identity formation and self-making across borders of identity politics and political movement boundaries, we can better understand how access to and power over urban green space remains a cross-cultural power struggle within contemporary cities.