When I left my home and my family
I was no more than a boy,
in the company of strangers
in the quiet of the railway station running scared.
Laying low, seeking out the poorer quarters
where the ragged people go,
looking for the places only they would know.
The Boxer, by Paul Simon
It’s a bright sunny day and I’m sitting on my bench, sipping my coffee, not fully realizing how fortunate I am. If I want, I can walk down the street and get a double dip of chocolate chip in a sugar cone. Or maybe go browse the bookstore. Later that evening I’ll probably go out to eat dinner with my wife, maybe take in the Friday evening concert at the levee. Much later, I’ll be home, maybe watching tv or cruising the internet. When we’ve finally exhausted all that the day has to offer, a comfortable bed awaits.
The bench I sat on hours ago is now a bed for one of the ragged people, whose name is known only to other ragged people. He’ll rest for a couple of hours before a cop taps the soles of his shoes and tells him to move on. The next morning he’s back for a few more hours. The cops won’t run him off until the city once again populates with people not so different from me.
Recently I had the pleasure of speaking to the Kanawha Garden Club, who have taken a special interest in Charleston’s Davis Park. Davis Park is a fundamentally good public space in need of a little refreshing after thirty years of public life. In discussing some of the needs of the park with the garden club, someone asked the question: “What can we do about the smokers?”
I’m not a smoker and like most non-smokers, I don’t really want to be around those who do smoke. We recognize the dangers of second-hand smoke and marginalize people who choose to engage in that particular behavior, while not (yet) completely depriving them of their right to smoke. So we have to figure out how to accommodate smokers while protecting the fresh air of non-smokers. One solution is to create special areas where smokers can congregate. Keep them among their own kind.
I joined the club for lunch after my presentation and the conversation moved from accommodating smokers to accommodating the itinerant, the indigent, and the homeless. Do those who seek out the poorer quarters have a lesser right to public spaces than the rest of us?
One means of keeping public spaces safe is by keeping out undesirables. We can all agree that people who want to engage in illegal activities shouldn’t be allowed in our public spaces, but beyond that, it will be difficult to find agreement about whom we deem as undesirable.
A more effective means of maintaining safe places is inclusion. The more different people we can include, the more inviting the space is for everyone.
But what of the ragged people? Do we acknowledge their presence? Do we analyze their needs? Do we recognize that, like smokers, most people don’t want to be around them? Or do we keeping tapping on their soles?
It’s not a question simply for the designer, it’s a question for our civic leaders. It’s a question for everyone who uses public spaces. It’s a question for all of us. And there’s not an easy answer.