In Delhi, 2020 was the year of protest. The first part of the year saw agitations against the government’s controversial citizenship initiatives in Shaheen Bagh and other places around the Capital. At the end of the year came another set of protests – which continue – against new farm laws.

These protests have obviously been studied by political scientists and sociologists. But they should also be of interest to those of us who study urbanism. After all, it’s clear that these protests have helped to humanise what scholars are calling “networked cities” – metropolises that are built on the physical networks of fast highways and bullet trains as well as digital networks of high-speed broadband that connect them to other global cities.

In her book The Global City: New York, London and Tokyo, Saskia Sassen’ describes the networked city as a flow of capital and information with the blurring of geographical boundaries between cities. But networked cities more often than not become sites for conflicts between interests of the people and state. As a consequence, they become potential protest sites as well.

Transforming mundane flows

The collective energy of the protests has helped transform the mundane networks and flows into more humane experiences. The very temporal nature of these protest spaces itself has presented the opportunity for protestors to create spaces that imbibe the shared values of the protesting group.

During the last two decades, as Delhi has grown further away from its medieval and colonial core, it became increasingly dependent on the larger region to provide the people and goods that sustain it. This has also resulted in a visible shift in the locations of the city’s protest spaces.

The traditional protest spaces of the city are located in Delhi’s colonial centre: Rajpath’s India Gate, Jantar Mantar and the Ramlila grounds. Eventually, the state designated these sites as spaces for holding peaceful protests and rallies.

The changing locations of protests are evident from the agitations against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the new farm laws. These protests have adopted a different spatial logic from the traditional claiming of public space in the city core. The protestors against the Citizenship Amendment Act in Shaheen Bagh chose a road in their neighbourhood in the southern part of the city to locate their protest.

The participants in the farmer’s protest, meanwhile, have set up tent cities on the highways at the city’s borders when they were stopped by the Delhi Police from entering the capital at Singhu, Tikri and Ghazipur.

Humanising infrastructure

The farmers’ protests are taking place on highways, transforming them from rivers of vehicles into a sea of people. In the networked city, highways are a critical component of connectivity. At the same time, they also divide the hinterland – making it inconvenient for people from villages on one side of the road to get across to meet residents on the other side. At both the protests, residents from each side of the highway could comfortably walk across and join the demonstrations.

At both protests, the sites have been remoulded to suit the needs of the protestors.

Road taken over by the people at Shaheen Bagh (photo credits: Himadri Das)

At Shaheen Bagh, the road was used to mount installations emphasising unity among people of India. At the Singhu border, farm protestors have used street signs to hang their banners and public address systems.

The highway has mutated from traffic to people, flow to pause, non-place to place, efficiency to identity and finally machine to human.

Remaking the city

The tactics and strategies employed by protestors to use street furniture, signage, infrastructure lines, bus stops, street lighting, amenities like fuel pumps, half-built bus depot structures, pedestrian over-bridges and many other components of the street are a lesson on how people adapt urban spaces.

Highway signage at Delhi's Singhu Border is used to mount loudspakers. Credit: Benjamin Mathews John.

In Shaheen Bagh, a bus stop is transformed into a podium from which leaders could give speeches. At the Singhu border, a petrol pump was converted into a langar where free meals are served to protesting farmers. The architecture of the city has been remade by the citizens themselves at sites of dissent.

A rally being held in a bus stop near Shaheen Bagh. Credit: Himadri Das

Technology as a facilitator of protests

Digital media, unlike a place, has no physical shape or form. Yet it plays a very important role in setting up a location to stage the protest. The digital medium that has been accused of eroding a sense of human connection actually facilitates the act of people joining together during protests.

Technology enables the protesters to organise themselves and operate efficiently. Information about resources available at the protest sites are constantly fed into their network, so that they can make the best use of it – information on the location of the toilets, prayer areas, food counters, water supply and more

The fact that governments around the world also enforce internet black-outs bears witness to how effective the technology is in organising protests.

The rise of new forms of protest spaces: From non-place to place

The collaboration between people through digital or physical connection, while appropriating the constraints of the immediate environment, just shows that this isn’t chaos but an evident underlying sense of order.

It is noteworthy that new trends in the locational characteristics of protest spaces are emerging. Critical infrastructure such as roads, highways, railways and sites of economic activities that form integral parts of the network city have all been adapted to serve the needs of protestors.

The evolution of protests, their sites, their means of creating platforms for people to rally together offer urban designers an opportunity to think about how best to create urban spaces for the people, of the people and by the people.

Himadri Das is an Urbanist and educator based in Bangalore.

Benjamin Mathews John is an Urban Planner/ Designer who works at the National Institute of Urban Affairs, Delhi.

Renjin Cherian is an architect/ urban designer who coordinates the M.Arch in Urban Design program at BMSSA, Bangalore.