Public spaces for everyone?

Posted: September 26, 2010 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , ,

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.

  1. Sky says:

    Great questions! Thanks Joe!

  2. My own feeling is that simply not wanting to be around someone, even if a majority doesn’t want to be around that person, should not be grounds for exclusion. Whether or not the person causes harm seems like a logical approach. For example, research has demonstrated that smokers harm non-smokers via secondhand smoke. However, the “ragged” individuals – poor or homeless – do not cause harm by simply being present. If we draw lines based on who doesn’t want to be around whom, pretty soon all public spaces would be empty. 🙂 Even the occasional panhandling is not harmful, despite indignant reactions from the less tolerant. As long as a “no” answer is accepted politely, asking “Can you spare a dollar?” is fundamentally no different than asking “Will you buy a scoop of rocky road from my ice cream cart?” or “Can you tell me the time?”

  3. Richard Lubbers says:

    One homeless woman studied in train stations until she graduated from high school with grades that landed her in Harvard. She has a book out now telling her story.

    Another homelss person grows old in the corner of the same train station asking for spare change.

    One man sneers in response to a panhandler. Another hands out a $20, wondering if it will help to feed the stomach or if it will be used to numb the mind.

    “A man hears what he wants to hear, and disregards the rest.”

    It seems some people live by the prayer, “Deliver us from unpleasantness.” People who think that way will certainly not want to see the ragged people in public spaces. For my part, I’d rather share a park bench with a ragged man than with people the likes of Bernie Madoff or Kenneth Lay.

  4. Joseph Bird says:

    Scott and Richard, I appreciate your reasoned comments. The best answer is to understand that not everyone who is different is a threat, either physically or psychologically. That kind of enlightenment, though, is more difficult for some. If our public spaces are designed in such a way that interaction is forced, many people will simply avoid the public space. On the other hand, if we can entice a broad cross-section of people and create an inclusive space, maybe the enlightenment which you speak of can occur naturally in a non-threatening environment.

  5. GennaClaire says:

    Thanks for sharing this with me, Joe. I love The Boxer as an intro. And I love all the important questions and important points you bring up, particularly: “The more different people we can include, the more inviting the space is for everyone.” Also, are you in Charleston?!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s