In a misguided effort to address the problem of homelessness, the city of San Francisco has removed benches and other forms of public seating. In the 1990s, benches were removed from Civic Center Plaza in front of City Hall. This space had become the “symbolic center” of the city’s homeless problem; a “shantytown of lean-tos, tents, mattresses, and couches” of hundreds of men and women” had arisen there, as Heather MacDonald wrote in 1994. In 2001, the city took out benches in the middle of the night from the United Nations Plaza and, back in November of 2010, San Francisco passed a law, the “sit-lie ordinance,” that makes sitting and lying on sidewalks between 7:00 am and 11:00 pm a criminal act.
The sad result of such measures is a city that is decidedly less livable for everybody, with people having to scrounge for low concrete walls to rest on and food trucks providing their own tables and chairs. A sort of grassroots effort has been underway to make small spaces in the city sit-able, and useable, notes the New York Times.
Inventive miniparks, called parklets, are popping up in parking spaces around the city, some of them with permanent seats, albeit uncomfortable ones — to discourage prolonged sitting. …Public rights-of-way are being transformed into plazas, like the Castro’s Jane Warner Plaza, an erstwhile intersection where residents now sit at tables sipping coffee in the sunshine.
But with a resurgence in creating public spaces where people can sit has come a renewed effort to regulate them and keep some individuals out. Scott Wiener, a supervisor who represents the Castro, has introduced a law that would “prohibit people from smoking, camping or parking shopping carts in Jane Warner Plaza and nearby Harvey Milk Plaza”; advocates for the homeless have spoken out against the legislation, charging that it is simply re-igniting anti-homeless sentiment.
The city itself is trying to figure out how to bring back public seating to Market Street, a main thoroughfare, but in such a way that access to the space can be controlled.
Neil Hrushowy, an urban designer for the city who is working on the Market Street project, said that past planning based solely on “the fear of quote-unquote undesirables” was not good for urban design — and did not actually work.
“There is a pretty broad agreement that depriving the public of seating is not going to solve the problem of who has access to public spaces,” Mr. Hrushowy said. “The question is, how can we happily coexist?”
A “happy coexistence” may well not be possible. By definition, “public spaces” are for the public, for anyone who wishes to occupy them. Attempting to limit access to public spaces by excluding certain people is a problematic endeavor that suggests that some people deserve to be in certain spaces, and some don’t.
Along with removing public seating, the “sit-lie ordinance” and Wiener’s proposed legislation are all poorly veiled attempts to take an “out of sight, out of mind” approach to individuals living on meaner and meaner streets. Such measures overlook the the reasons why people find themselves lacking a place of their own to sit, to lie, to live.
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Photo taken in January 2011 by Andrew Kodama
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