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Design for the Crowd

Patriotism and Protest in Union Square

Situated on Broadway between Fourteenth and Seventeenth Streets, Union Square occupies a central place in both the geography and the history of New York City. Though this compact space was originally designed in 1830 to beautify a residential neighborhood and boost property values, by the early days of the Civil War, New Yorkers had transformed Union Square into a gathering place for political debate and protest. As public use of the square changed, so, too, did its design. When Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux redesigned the park in the late nineteenth century, they sought to enhance its potential as a space for the orderly expression of public sentiment. A few decades later, anarchists and Communist activists, including Emma Goldman, turned Union Square into a regular gathering place where they would advocate for radical change. In response, a series of city administrations and business groups sought to quash this unruly form of dissidence by remaking the square into a new kind of patriotic space. As Joanna Merwood-Salisbury shows us in Design for the Crowd, the history of Union Square illustrates ongoing debates over the proper organization of urban space—and competing images of the public that uses it.

In this sweeping history of an iconic urban square, Merwood-Salisbury gives us a review of American political activism, philosophies of urban design, and the many ways in which a seemingly stable landmark can change through public engagement and design.

Published with the support of Furthermore: a program of the J. M. Kaplan Fund.

312 pages | 43 halftones | 7 x 10 | © 2019

Architecture: American Architecture

History: American History, Urban History


"You will no longer think of Union Square the same way after reading Joanna Merwood-Salisbury‘s beautifully and richly detailed history of this very misunderstood public place."

The Bowery Boys

Design for the Crowd takes the reader along an exhilarating procession through US history and urban space. While intently focused on a few acres in Manhattan, Merwood-Salisbury traverses two centuries of urban creativity, paced by a rhythmic interplay of urban planning, design, politics, and the tension between public space and private interests. Historians, planners, and citizens will find the book brimming over with insight and pleasure.”

Mary P. Ryan, author of Taking the Land to Make the City

“This exceptional book delivers on several fronts: as the spatial history of an iconic New York place, as a contextual history of critical drivers of urban change, and as a narrative interlocked with epochal shifts in American social, political, and economic life. It is a brilliant account of the contested making, shifting meanings, and inherent tensions of the public realm as the epicenter of urban civilization.”

Robert Freestone, coauthor of Designing the Global City

“In Design for the Crowd, Merwood-Salisbury develops a theory of urban design at the small scale by carefully examining the history of Union Square. Design for the Crowd covers the emergence of this contested terrain through a comprehensive archaeological reading of its changing form. As a leading scholar of the relationship between architectural form and social practice, Merwood-Salisbury shifts from an archaeological to a genealogical approach, measuring the emergence of Union Square from every possible social point of view, revealing the evolution of public space designed by and for the crowd. She begins with the spatial formation of small-scale social encounters and unfolds with profound observations on the mutability of public space to uncover the conflicts and contradictions inherent in our cherished beliefs in freedom of movement, gathering, and speech in the crowded democratic metropolis.”

Brian McGrath, author of Urban Design Ecologies

“Merwood-Salisbury offers a fascinating and well-researched history of Union Square, one of New York City’s central hubs. Integrating architectural and urban history, political and cultural history, theories of space from sociology and other disciplines, and original archival research, Design for the Crowd reveals the ways in which carefully orchestrated urban plans are reconfigured through use. This book will be of unique interest because it historicizes public space via a single, concrete site. It stands as a major contribution to many fields, from architecture and urban planning to political science.”

Maggie Taft, coeditor of Art in Chicago

Design for the Crowd arrives at a pivotal moment in the history of the American city—one where debates about the appropriate uses of public space and the exercise of free speech are as contentious as they have been in decades. Elegantly written and sweeping in scope, Merwood-Salisbury’s volume reminds us that public space in the United States has always been a site where multiple agendas were in contest with one another, and where power is always exercised. It is a pointed affirmation of the contribution architectural history can make to illuminating our present moment.”

Benjamin Flowers, author of Sport and Architecture

"One of the great merits of Design for the Crowd is that while its analysis is rooted in exploring the shifting terrain of this dynamic between order and agonism, patriotism and protest, it also is closely attentive to those moments when the distinction between the ideals is not just blurred, but actively remade."

Donald Mitchell | Gotham Center for New York City History

"Design for the Crowd is an exceptional urban history, a model for scholars of public space."

Journal of Urban History

"This well-written book focuses on one of New York’s most iconic but most singular open spaces, Union Square. It combines history, architecture, sociology, and theory in creating a useful overview of the square in the context of public speech."

Journal of Urban Affairs

Table of Contents


Chapter One: An Ornament to the City, 1811–1850
Chapter Two: The Altar of Patriotism, 1856–1865
Chapter Three: Olmsted and Vaux’s Plaza, 1865–1872
Chapter Four: The People’s Forum, 1872–1886
Chapter Five: The Home of Discontent, 1886–1917
Chapter Six: City Beautiful Civic Center, 1898–1933
Chapter Seven: Cold War Park, 1934–1965
Chapter Eight: Renewal, Revitalization and Place Making, 1966–1998

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