A Dictator's Guide to Urban Design

Ukraine's Independence Square, and the revolutionary dimensions of public spaces.
An aerial view shows Ukraine's Independence Square during clashes between anti-government protesters and riot police in Kiev, on February 19. (Olga Yakimovich/Reuters)

Ukraine is the size of Texas, but for the last three months its burgeoning protest movement has largely crowded into the space of 10 city blocks.

The name for the movement itself, Euromaidan, is a neologism fusing the prefix euro, a nod to the opposition's desire to move closer to the EU and away from Russia, with the Ukrainian (and originally Persian and Arabic) word maidan, or public square. And the term is about more than situating the demonstrations in Kiev's Independence Square (Maidan Nezalezhnosti). Ukraine may be located in Europe geographically, but many of the protesters also see Europe as an idea, one that "implies genuine democracy, trustworthy police and sincere respect for human rights."

The name speaks to an increasingly universal phenomenon as well: the public square as an epicenter of democratic expression and protest, and the lack of one—or the deliberate manipulation of such a space—as a way for autocrats to squash dissent through urban design.

Not all revolutions have been centered in public squares, but many recent ones have, including several in former Soviet states. Georgia's Rose Revolution in 2003 toppled President Eduard Shevardnadze from Tbilisi's Freedom Square. Kyrgyz protesters seized Ala-Too Square from police in 2005, then promptly stormed the nearby presidential palace and ousted long-time President Askar Akayev. Ukraine's Orange Revolution in 2004 took place in the same Independence Square where protesters have now engaged in bloody clashes with government forces, wringing promises from President Viktor Yanukovych for early elections and a return to the 2004 constitution.

The symbolism of the public square gained new potency during the Arab Spring. An essayist writing in the heady days of the Egyptian revolution, shortly after Hosni Mubarak's downfall in 2011, eloquently explained how Tahrir Square represented the broader repression of Egyptian civil society. The square was originally built in the 19th century based on a "Paris on the Nile" design for Cairo, and renamed Tahrir (Liberation) Square when it became a focal point for the Egyptian revolutions of 1919 and 1952:

Indeed, in the past few weeks Tahrir has became a truly public square. Before it was merely a big and busy traffic circle—and again, its limitations were the result of political design, of policies that not only discouraged but also prohibited public assembly. Under emergency law—established from the moment Mubarak took office in 1981 and yet to be lifted—a gathering of even a few adults in a public square would constitute cause for arrest. Like all autocracies, the Mubarak government understood the power of a true public square, of a place where citizens meet, mingle, promenade, gather, protest, perform and share ideas; it understood that a true midan—Arabic for public square—is a physical manifestation of democracy. A truly public Midan al-Tahrir would have been feared as a threat to regime security, and so over the years the state deployed the physical design of urban space as one of its chief means of discouraging democracy. 

In Tahrir this meant erecting fences and subdividing open areas into manageable plots of grass and sidewalks. To cite one prominent example: the large portion of the square that fronts the Egyptian museum was, until the 1960s, a grassy plaza with crisscrossing paths and a grand fountain. Here families and students would gather throughout the day; it was also a notorious meeting point for lovers on a date in the heart of the city. But in the 1970s, the government fenced off the area—and more, it never offered any clear explanation of what was to be the fate of this favorite meeting spot. Cairenes speculated that perhaps it was closed to allow for construction of the Cairo Metro or other infrastructure projects. Sometime in the past decade a sign appeared, announcing that a multi-level underground parking garage was being built. During the protests in Tahrir Square, activists took down the fence and used it to build barricades to protect themselves from the attacks of pro-Mubarak thugs—and the removal of the fence revealed that none of the promised construction had ever taken place. The area had been taken away from the public sphere precisely to avoid the possibility of large crowds congregating in Tahrir. Such was Mubarak’s urban planning legacy. 

Cairo's layout also made Tahrir Square the perfect place to launch a revolution. Centrally located in Egypt's largest city, Tahrir sits near the Egyptian parliament, Mubarak's political party headquarters, the presidential palace, numerous foreign embassies, and hotels filled with international journalists to broadcast footage of the protests for audiences around the world. After Mubarak stepped down, large public squares in other Arab capitals became revolutionary battlegrounds as well.

The Democracy Report

For Libya, Tripoli's main public square has come to symbolize the success of the country's 2011 revolution. Originally named Piazza Italia under Italian colonial rule (Western European-inspired central squares are a common theme in this part of the world) and then Independence Square by the Libyan monarchy, it had been renamed "Green Square" after Muammar Qaddafi's political ideology. Libya's transitional government promptly renamed it Martyrs' Square after those who died fighting Qaddafi's regime in Libya's civil war.

But these public spaces don't always survive the revolutionary moments that make them famous. Bahrain's most prominent public square (or circle) met the same fate as the uprising that once filled it. After demonstrators marched to Manana's Pearl Roundabout in March 2011, the Bahraini government retook the circle in a bloody crackdown, then tore up the grass with backhoes and demolished the central Pearl Monument to reassert control.

Bahraini government workers demolish the Pearl Roundabout in Bahrain's capital Manana, in March 2011. (Hamid I Mohammed/Reuters)

In many ways, France pioneered the conscious use of urban design for political purposes. Paris in the early 19th century was essentially a medieval city, suffocating from overcrowding and poor infrastructure. Baron Haussmann's urban renovations under Napoleon III in the 1850s and 1860s gave the City of Light a modern sewage system, beautiful suburban parks, and a network of train stations. He also took the opportunity to demolish unruly lower-class neighborhoods, banish their impoverished inhabitants to suburbs, and replace their cramped, narrow alleys with spacious, grand boulevards. In the event of an uprising, like those that took place in 1789, 1830, and 1848, French authorities hoped the wider streets would be both harder for revolutionary Parisians to barricade and easier for columns of French soldiers to march through to suppress revolts.

Similar calculations are still made today. In 2005, Burma's ruling junta moved the government from Yangon, a sprawling metropolis of 5 million people, to the new inland capital at Naypyidaw for security reasons. Isolated from other population centers, Naypyidaw is populated mostly by government functionaries and military officials who spend as little time as possible in the eerily desolate city. Burmese officials claim almost a million people live there, although the true population is likely far, far lower than that.

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Matt Ford is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the National Channel and works on social media.

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