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Ecohybridity performs along a Lower Ninth Ward floodwall. (Credit: Ecohybridity)
Ecohybridity performs along a Lower Ninth Ward floodwall. (Credit: Ecohybridity)

(NextCity) – City zoning that supports fair housing is boring. Very few people want to jump into a casual conversation about the best way to manage blight or reduce verbal street harassment. Unless you’re with friends, it’s next to impossible for a discussion about Confederate monuments or race and policing to become anything but inflammatory. (If you need evidence of that, refer to the comments section below any online article attempting to deal with those topics.) Yet these issues of urban justice can’t be left to trolls, or even politicians, to hash out — not if we want to see progress in our cities. Change will only come as a result of public awareness, dialogue and, ultimately, political pressure.

So, the question becomes a simple one: How do we get people to pay attention?

Over the past several years, activists in cities from Cairo to Oakland to Rio de Janeiro have increasingly found answers in the built environment and the field of design. They have protested inadequate infrastructure by building their own, deployed street art as political missive and reappropriated abandoned homes. All of this can be described as design as protest.

In a sense, design as protest is a matter of branding. It is a means of broadcasting a message and drawing people in. In rare cases, actions like blocking a road or projecting controversial images onto a building, or taking urban wayfinding into a community’s own hands are designed to be ends in themselves. More often, they’re attractive, often jarring, aesthetic interruptions that force the broader public to stop and consider something new. They’re billboards advertising a product you’ve never heard of. They’re movie trailers, inviting you to a feature film that will change the world.

In another sense, when we talk about design as protest, it applies to the unique design of the protest itself. It’s about organizers using the urban landscape as a tool in service of their message. This approach requires a fundamental understanding of history, urban context, and the way cities work to be intentional and effective.

Read the full report here.

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