What does a city that meaningfully designs for all of its citizens look like? One of the reasons I am such a fan of city libraries and parks spaces is that these are two places where all people-regardless of who they are or their circumstances-are universally welcome to use and access those spaces. You can tell a lot about a city in how those libraries and parks treat the most vulnerable and disenfranchised.
Allison Arieff in the New York Times observes that the absence of seating in public places is an exclusionary tactic. San Francisco quietly removed all the benches in their Civic Centre and United Nation Plazas, meaning that “public seating has been removed from virtually the entire city.” It’s no surprise that a new book is coming out called “The Arsenal of Exclusion and Inclusion,” positing that things like dead-end streets, signs indicating you can’t loiter, and other restrictive signage are actually “weapons” in a kind of fight to control and alter the use of public space. Those “weapons” include “seemingly decorative “anti-homeless” spikes installed on the exterior ledges of buildings, benches with metal armrests set close together to prevent anyone from lying down, even classical music piped through outdoor speakers to deter teenagers from congregating in front of convenience stores.”
And apparently in San Francisco and Hamburg the municipalities are using a paint on buildings and structures called “pee paint”. Urinate on it and the urine splashes back at the person. All of this uncomfortableness directed at one segment of the population is not new~Portland Oregon had an “Ugly Law” from 1881 that was enforced in 1916 for a lady “making a living selling newspapers on the street who was told by authorities that she was “too terrible a sight for the children to see” and given money to get out-of-town. ”
Laws targeting the disabled and people of certain ethnic backgrounds is a sorry part of North American history. But it points to how we view inclusion or the lack of it for all citizens in our cities and places. While “NORCS” (naturally occurring retirement communities) are “accidental” inclusionary events, barriers to inclusion need to be addressed by actively participating in community. Arieff cites street parties, pop-up stores on vacant facades, and cohesively working and getting to know neighbours as vital. And there is good news in San Francisco~walkability and public space guru Jan Gehl is working with the city to get those benches back in Civic Centre Plaza, relying on data collected from the plaza’s users. As Arieff sums up “Inequality is escalating, and these spaces make that reality visible. It doesn’t have to continue this way. Everyone has the potential to act and, in a way, to be the designer of his or her environment. This is a call to action.”