Student Opinion: ‘The Public Space Issue’ – U.C. Berkeley Plans to Seize Historic Park 

Photograph by Felicia Kieselhorst //

By Osvaldo Barba

BERKELEY— The University of California at Berkeley’s imminent plans to develop on People’s Park, a well-known and historically significant public space, have led to significant clashes between students, the administration that claims to represent them, and the unhoused population of Berkeley.

University representatives and developers have been in a dispute with advocates for the unhoused over the land of People’s Park for over 50 years. The university acquired the park on grounds of eminent domain. However, students and community members are largely responsible for the park’s status as a culturally relevant site and a symbol of free speech. 

Arguments for development include alleged safety concerns as well as the need for student housing, while opponents believe the displacement of existing residents is deeply problematic, especially for an institution that prides itself on being a bastion of freedom.

The University has owned the land of People’s Park for decades without building housing on the grounds. Now, the administration is looking to develop in the immediate future. 

This plan has drawn much criticism (including a series of protests), especially given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and resultant disproportionate impact on unhoused populations.

According to @peoplesparkberkeley on Instagram on Jan. 19, “fencing and solar-powered surveillance were set around sections of the park for the purpose of taking soil samples for building.” 

On Feb. 22, 2021, U.C. Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ released an email containing the proposed building at People’s Park. According to the email, the development would benefit “1,000 students and…45-50 unhoused residents.” 

While the Chancellor’s message may sound compelling, it requires students to place faith not only in the good intentions of the university, but also in its ability to carry out the plans. 

U.C. Berkeley Capital Strategies, a development firm that provides architects, planners, and engineers to the university, claimed the park would be used for “student and supportive housing” and that “new student housing would help mitigate U.C. Berkeley’s severe student housing shortage, while the supportive housing will provide safe and supervised living that is affordable and permanent.”

However, a multitude of students and activists for People’s Park have been rightfully angered by such emails and plans. 

On Feb. 23, @peoplesparkberkeley demanded accountability from the university, urging the permanent “stoppage of any development on People’s Park.” 

The Instagram page also uploaded short-term demands, including but not limited to: ending Capital Strategies’ development, defunding and disarming the University of California Police Department, and respecting the park users’ autonomy.

According to The Suitcase Clinic, a student organization that offers free social services to underserved populations, U.C. Berkeley is demonstrating a “lack of transparency” and aiming for “the destruction of green space…[erasing] decades of rich cultural, communal, and social history.”

Advocate Luke Wonzen, a U.C. Berkeley freshman, stated that People’s Park “is a habitat for revolutionary ideals and is a living testament to the counterculture movements of the 60s and 70s.” 

Austine Peng, the Executive Director of The Suitcase Clinic, stated that the university is purposefully not building on alternative sites because “demolishing current student housing to make more is not convenient for them.” Yet another student, Sahand Hassanipour, highlighted the necessity for representation for the existing residents of People’s Park. 

Student activist Amanda Hill confirmed that they are the “sole student representative on the People’s Park academic planning committee”—a lack of representation which is deeply concerning, given that students and park residents will be most significantly affected by development.

These student activists, among numerous others, rightfully criticized the position of U.C. Berkeley in regard to their stance on freedoms of speech. 

“U.C. Berkeley has co-opted revolutionary language and mannerisms, such as posturing toward social justice, but, as should be expected, does very little to back up their posturing” said Wonzen, 

Juxtaposing the university’s actions with their words, Wonzen points to the Berkeley Division of Student Affairs’ statement on Free Speech, which claims to “guarantee constitutionally protected rights and free expression, speech, assembly, and worship.”

A number of advocates—including students, the Park’s population, and other residents of the city of Berkeley—perceive building on the park as a forceful, violent, and disgraceful gentrification. The University of California, Berkeley, views it as a way to help students and community in need. 

As demonstrated by recent protests and social media campaigns, opponents to the development will continue to voice their opinions and advocate for the autonomy of the park.

Students, community members, and witnesses alike wait with uncertainty for answers—will U.C. Berkeley listen to the students and the unhoused population? Or will it continue its plans to develop on People’s Park?

Disclaimer–this piece is an opinion article and thus does not reflect the official opinions of the University of California, Berkeley.

Osvaldo Barba is a writer for The Vanguard at Berkeley’s social justice desk. He is a freshman studying Political Science at Cal. He is from Los Angeles, CA.

To sign up for our new newsletter – Everyday Injustice –

Support our work – to become a sustaining at $5 – $10- $25 per month hit the link:

About The Author

Koda is an incoming senior at UC Berkeley, majoring in Philosophy and minoring in Rhetoric. He is from Ventura, CA.

Related posts


  1. Keith Olsen

    However, students and community members are largely responsible for the park’s status as a culturally relevant site and a symbol of free speech.

    A symbol of free speech?  How about when the students shut down the free speech of Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos a few years back?  It comes across as hypocritical to now cry about a symbol of free speech after what they did then.

    1. Alan Miller

      I’ve got to agree with you on that!  The ideal of free speech died at Berkeley, ironically at the hands of student activists who used to fight for it.  Now if you are ‘wrong enough’, you don’t count and free speech is out the window.

      I actually thought the student activists would come out on the side of the University and fight the old hippies to advocate for more housing.  Oddly, the students seem to be fighting with the hippies because of a large homeless population there, that they seem to care about more than housing capacity for students.  I wonder which side they would be on if there was no homeless population there?

      I’m with keeping the park because it is clearly a major historic site with deep roots in the community and people’s souls.  You just don’t mess  with that.

  2. Alan Miller

    A number of advocates— including students, the Park’s population, and other residents of the city of Berkeley— perceive the building on the park as a forceful, violent, and disgraceful gentrification.

    There are some places you just don’t f*ck with, and People’s Park is one of them.  It’s heartening to me to see student activists and old hippies uniting in fighting the University’s plans.  This one could get violent – I think the U in underestimating what this park means to people. A dude was killed in the 60’s fighting over this park. You don’t mess with something with this much history.

    The University of California, Berkeley views it as a way to help students and community in need.

    A good friend lived across from the Park before the first protests happened in the 60’s.  It’s the same story, half a century later.  This is about money, not a benevolent University.

  3. Alan Miller

    Why was this article put at the bottom of stack, below all the court articles so that it fell after all nine picture slots?  Usually all the news articles are first – except this one.  I really GAD about PP, and almost missed the article.

        1. Koda Slingluff

          Davis Vanguard has a new chapter run by Berkeley-area students! Our articles are still listed with the others, but you can access them all directly here. Hope that helps– glad you’re interested!

        2. Alan Miller

          I was just bummed it never appeared high-enough up in the stack of articles that it was in the nine articles with pictures.  I thought it got ‘spiked’ before anyone had a chance to see it had been posted, unless you scrolled down.  So still not sure why it was down that low in the Vanguard itself, but appreciate the article!

  4. Ron Glick

    Build on People’s Park? I’ll believe it when I see it. UC has been trying to do that for over 50 years. This article should be reprinted annually or you should find one from 50 years ago and reprint that one annually.

  5. Sharla Cheney

    The community has long discarded the romantic idea that People’s Park is a symbol of freedom and a community asset.  In the 90’s the space became a crime-ridden hell hole. The Health Department finally shut it down and it took over a month to clear the property of toxic waste before developing it into a park with amenities.  The City and University has made every effort to make it usable open space, but most people in the community avoid it as a dangerous space.  Housing is desperately needed.  It’s time.


  6. Carol Denney

    While the CDC does advise tent groups be left alone during the pandemic as a public health best practice, there are even more reasons for respecting People’s Park’s landmark status and open space unaddressed by this article; the issue was never and is not about housing. The University of California is the largest landowner in Berkeley, and owns enormous amounts of land all over California. It doesn’t need to destroy parks or landmarks to address housing issues. People’s Park is both a park and a landmark, with a stage declared a “quintessential public forum” by the Oakland Superior Court in 1978, a court-ordered protection which still stands and was issued long before its city and state landmark status. The university has agreements it signed protecting the park and affirming community participation in decision-making about the park from as long ago as the 1970’s. What’s happening now is just another test; will people consider its landmark political and cultural heritage unimportant after 50 years? The fact that the University of California didn’t even bother to send out the usual push-poll to their students this time is an indication that they’re worried this student is educated enough to recognize the importance of open space, of culturally significance places, of a stage that sparked cultural and political chance, and a garden that stopped a war.



Leave a Reply

X Close

Newsletter Sign-Up

X Close

Monthly Subscriber Sign-Up

Enter the maximum amount you want to pay each month
Sign up for