Staff Columnist

Human choices dictate use of spaces

Iowa City bench design is latest move to discourage some public behavior on Ped Mall

New benches on the Pedestrian Mall have middle armrests as seen in Iowa City on Friday, Nov. 30, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
New benches on the Pedestrian Mall have middle armrests as seen in Iowa City on Friday, Nov. 30, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

Our built environment is the product of human decisions.

That’s one of my favorite lines from one of my favorite books, “The Arsenal of Exclusion and Inclusion.” What it means is people — architects, elected officials, community planners, residents, etc. — make decisions to determine how space, especially public space, is used. Sections of a community become home to certain activities by design and, sadly, too often by exclusionary design.

This was on my mind as I observed the dust-up created by a Nov. 23 social media post by the Iowa City Catholic Worker House on the decision by city officials to place benches on the Ped Mall with center armrests, and a subsequent news item in The Gazette, that led with the same question: Do these benches discriminate?

A quick glance at the differing social media responses on these posts makes clear the question posed isn’t adequate, and doesn’t spark the type of conversation to advance broader discussion. Benches, in and of themselves, aren’t discriminatory; they welcome all backsides. What we want to know is whether design of the benches, purposefully or inadvertently, makes this public space more or less inclusive.

Civil Engineer Scott Sovers told The Gazette the design of the benches was intentional to create the illusion of more seating. With a center armrest, Sovers said the city “thought that folks are going to feel more comfortable … sitting next to someone they’re maybe not with or a stranger.”

The Project for Public Spaces, a well-known placemaking firm out of New York, agrees that center armrests can serve such a purpose, as well as helping those who are elderly or disabled in sitting and standing. The group offers a general standard for such armrests: “The edge of the armrest should extend out to the edge of the seat, and it should have a firm, rounded gripping surface.”

Neither the center or end armrests on the new benches follow this advice. They extend roughly to the middle of the seat, are bent at a nearly 90-degree angle, and are not rounded for easy gripping.

Adding to the controversy is Iowa City’s long-standing history with the public on the Ped Mall. The city had an ordinance against begging in place since 1966; its 2010 ordinance against panhandling in places such as downtown was repealed last year in the wake of the courts finding such policies unconstitutional. Instead, the city, like others, including Cedar Rapids, has opted to address “undesirable behavior,” often defined as the types of behaviors exhibited by people experiencing poverty or homelessness that unsettle others. More often than not, the behaviors are wrapped in “public safety concerns.”

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It should be lost on no one that bench improvements began at the north end of the Ped Mall, the same section highlighted by city staff and council members in 2013 as they debated an ordinance about loitering and other behavior.

The built environment is product of human decisions, and the decision made in Iowa City was to usurp Eighth Amendment protections, not through an ordinance that could be challenged in court, but by redesigning a public place to all but exclude public sleeping.

• Comments: @LyndaIowa, (319) 368-8513, lynda.waddington@thegazette.com

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