Competition: Politics, Protest, and Place – A Call for an Inclusive Urban Realm

  • Date

    Monday, October 26 2020-Monday, November 30 2020

  • Time

    Multi-day event.


On June 5th when Mayor Bowser painted “Black Lives Matter” on 16th Street NW in front of the White House and as a temporary fence transformed into a makeshift billboard, it became abundantly clear that the appearance and design of public space can itself be an act of protest and speech. During the recent protest, people expressed their resentment and frustration by reclaiming space through art, text, removal of iconic statues and renaming of squares throughout the city, which brought an extraordinary transfiguration of space by symbolizing unity and hope. We seek to examine ways in which the physical environment of cities can participate and promote civic engagement, sharing in the life of the community and activism in our national capital - Washington, DC.

L’Enfant designed the nation’s capital in baroque style, transposing French colonial architectural elements in the American Landscape. The master plan features ceremonial spaces and grand radial avenues creating a system of intersecting diagonal avenues superimposed over a grid system. The open spaces were laid in a systematic fashion reserved to feature statues and memorials. This resulted into powerful axial lines topographically connecting and highlighting symbols of power. These symbols of power are seen as places where people can voice their opinion in mass. The District of Columbia’s complex and storied history is intrinsically tied to protesting. As a means of voicing frustrations or agreement, people from all over the country travel to DC for marches, protests, and demonstrations. Most notably, approximately 850,000 Black men gathered on the National Mall for the Million Man March in 1995 as a demonstration to direct the attention of politicians towards issues that directly affect people of color. More recently, the 2016 Women’s March gathered approximately 470,000 women on the National Mall. Although the National Mall holds hundreds of thousands of people, is it inclusive, safe for all people? Smaller demonstrations regularly occur near the White House at the recently created Black Lives Matter Plaza. The Plaza has become a gathering place for people to gather to protest & commune. Congressman John Lewis’s motorcade made sure to pass through Black Lives Matter Plaza where many had gathered to pay tribute and celebrate the life of the civil rights activist, Congressman, and community leader. The White House fence and the threshold between the public and the private realm has become a healing landscape form.


The mechanisms for political dissent and discourse have evolved over time. The great civic spaces of the Roman Forum and the Agora offered opportunity for public gatherings of great social significance, discourse and debate. We are beginning to see a shift in the design of today’s public realm, partially born out of the reactions to the 9/11 attacks, but also caused by the primacy given to private property at the cost of investing in the places that enable the life of the commons.  Today, it is easier to find a coffee shop and a place on a bench to read book or listen to music than to meet people or perform any spontaneous, unintended collective activities. One such example is the recently developed Hudson Yards in New York City. Although Hudson Yards contains large outdoor spaces, these spaces are more conducive to small tourist procession just like the Highline. The landscape layout is designed to only allow the gathering of small groups, it fails to create sense of community ownership that are found in traditional civic spaces.

Does the modern public realm mirror how 21st Century humans want to live? Even though it would not be wrong to say that people are more connected with each other than ever before thanks to data and technologies, do we have similar platforms in our physical environment? So as the social activity is moving more towards virtual environment is it also diminishing the kind of experiences that traditional cities can afford? In the physical environment? Is today’s public realm designed to be made up of collective spaces?

Until the pandemic we always had fixed designation for the spaces in our environment. We inherently know a building is either a school, hospital, office, etc, but as we find new ways to communicate and connect with each other, we know that a fixed set of boundaries no longer exists. A street can be a vehicular pathway or a restaurant or a play area or a shopping market. And while people are trying to come together, our physical environment is filled with obstacles, both real and implied, caused by the primacy given to private property at the cost of investing in the places that enable the life of the commons. The redlining of DC has led to a stark divide between races and contributed to income inequality which has created neighborhoods that divide people who do not come from similar backgrounds. How can we create commonality between those starkly different neighborhoods for a new generation, turning barriers into openings that provide opportunity for people to connect?

Even within the restrictions of the pandemic, people still ventured outside and found a new way to support the BLM movement.  Today, we are seeing many new forms of activism. Protests are no longer tied to symbols of power (i.e. the White House); protestors are now gathering in different areas: cities, rural areas, parking lots, sites of racial injustice, etc. We now see cyclists, skateboarders, and artists coming forward in various cities taking over the highways. Protests are no longer limited to a specific geographic location, as demonstrated with the recent #blackouttuesday supported on Instagram.

The word “civic” is inherently linked to space, place, urban design, and social justice. Designers need to expand their role beyond the traditional boundaries that have defined us and our industry. Our skill set and training enables us to navigate complex problems and ambiguity to facilitate and discover unexpected solutions.  This will require stronger collaboration and cross-industry relationships and, more importantly, direct political and civic involvement where the policies affecting these issues can be influenced and defined.


As architects and urban designers, we are stewards of public space, and it is our professional and civic responsibility to influence change (and our elected officials) toward a more equitable built environment for all. We call on all designers to use the public realm of the District of Columbia as a canvas for provocative conceptualization to facilitate social activism in our public realm in new and novel ways.


  • Should we design spaces in our urban fabric and typology specifically for protesting?
  • How can space be transformed to take on meaning in yet to be determined ways?
  • How can space be co-opted as a form of protest or collective expression?
  • How can design interventions make activism more inclusive and safer for all?
  • How can unintended spaces be more welcoming to activism and civic engagement to more diverse groups?
  • How can urban spaces reframe community gathering spaces to highlight commonalities?
  • How can existing urban form be leveraged to promote participation for inclusive public protest?
  • How can these spaces participate in the act of protest spontaneously, temporarily, or permanently?
  • How can place enable civil dissent and promote change through design?
  • How can place bolster the voices of all of our neighbors, whether embedded in DC’s residential communities, situated alongside sites of American history, or by confronting the symbols of our democracy?
  • What is the role of place and the public realm in either facilitating or restricting protest and dissent in the District? How can it be the voice of the public?
  • How can space be transformed to take on meaning in yet to be determined ways?
  • How can space be coopted as a form of protest, or as personal or collective expression? Temporarily? Spontaneously?


10/26/20            Open Registration
11/02/20            Start Competition
11/30/20            Competition Ends. Submissions are final.
End 2020           Finalists are announced, and winner selected


  • Any person or teams of up to five members may register and submit a competition entry.  
  • Multiple entries from the same person or team may be considered as long as each is registered and paid for separately and the content is not duplicated. Duplicated content will disqualify all entries involved.
  • Any person that is a registered member of the AIA|DC Urban Design Committee is not eligible.
    If you have any questions about the eligibility requirements, please contact the AIA|DC UDC at aia.ud.dc@gmail.comAIA|DC UDC shall have the sole authority to verify that eligibility requirements have been met.


 The jury shall have the sole authority to determine awards. The jury’s decisions shall be final and not subject to review. All entries will be anonymous up to the final selection. Finalists will be selected in a two-tiered process. In the first judging round, the jury will select top candidates for final awards. Of these submissions, the winner and honorable mentions will be decided.


 The winner will receive monetary award and free registration to the next AIA|DC Urban Design Competition, in addition to the opportunity to author an article in this journal and receive a printed copy. The finalists will be featured in UDDC’s annual publication about their submission and will receive a printed copy of the journal. See previous years' journals here:

Avenues, Issue 1 - Livability + The City
Avenues, Issue 2 - Spatial Equity
Avenues, Issue 3 - Transparency


  • Entrant information, including primary contact name, email address, and list of all team members (if applicable) must be submitted at the time of project submission.
  • Submission primary contact name AND email must match with registration. Noncompliance will be disqualified.

Submission Requirements

You are invited to describe your ideas in any variety of ways, with the following requirements:

  • All submissions are due by 11:59 pm EST on November 15th, 2020.                           
  • All submissions must be digital and uploaded to the competition website.           
  • Once registered, respondents will receive a link and confirmation number to access the submission website.
  • No compensations will be made for technical difficulties in uploading past the deadline. We encourage you to upload your submission early.
  • No identifying information should appear within the content of the submission.        
  • A short narrative of 300-500 words is required.
  • Drawings and imagery should illustrate the proposals impact on different urban scales.
  • Files should be submitted in one of the following file types: PDF, AVI, WMV, MOV, MP4.
  • Multi-page PDF submissions are limited to 5 pages/slides.
  • Video submission are limited to 3 minutes in length.
  • All submissions (regardless of format) are limited to 25 MB in size.     

Submissions could include, among other types:

  • Bird’s eye and/or eye level renderings  
  • Site plans, plans and/or sections            
  • Axonometric or isometric drawings
  • Video (max length of 3min)
  • Infographics and diagrams
  • Collage
  • GIF

All persons or firms contributing to the design of the project must be given due credit, regardless of their professional disciplines. It is incumbent upon the submitting person to provide a complete list of all participants contributing to the design. By submitting a project for consideration, the submitting persons represents and warrants to AIA|DC that he or she has provided a complete list. Failure to provide a complete list may result in disqualification and/or a referral of the matter to the appropriate ethics body of the national office of AIA. AIA|DC accepts no responsibility for incomplete lists.

Although every reasonable precaution shall be taken in handling submitted material, the Chapter shall not be held responsible for loss of, or damage to, any submission.

Acceptance of an award shall constitute an agreement by the entrant to authorize AIA|DC to reproduce any of the material described above for publicity purposes, and an agreement to indemnify and hold the Chapter harmless in connection with such materials.

The jury will score entries on the following criteria:

  • Innovation and creativity of idea  (50%)
  • Site Selection  (30%)                                                          
  • Clearly and effectively communicates idea  (20%)               

The jury’s selection will permanent and final. An impartial member of the AIA|DC Committee will serve as a moderator for the jury and provide written documentation of the jury’s selection. The jury will certify the accuracy and completeness of the documentation before the winners are announced publicly. Scoring rubrics and notes made by jury members during the jury’s closed session(s) will not be available to the public or participants. The Jury reserves the right to award winners but is not required to do so if the entries submitted do not meet the objectives of the competition as stated in the brief.