On misanthropic bus stops and anti-social cities

This post was written by Reuben on July 6, 2011
Posted Under: Uncategorized

Surely it is indicative of some kind of social malaise when public utilities are deliberately designed to be uncomfortable.

For some time now bus stop seats up in Wood Green have been making me disproportionately angry. They slope sharply towards the ground – like a lot of bus seats to a far greater degree.  As a young man whose unhealthy lifestyle has not yet caught up with me, I don’t particularly mind having to half stand while waiting for a bus. Were I several decades older the difference between this contraption and a proper seat might actually loom quite large.

But what really makes me angry is not so much the physical impact of this excuse a for a bench. Rather it is what it communicates about the attitude of public authorities towards citizens – namely that people are a problem. It’s fairly obvious that these benches are shaped in this way to prevent people lingering. Indeed, the problem of “loitering” – that is to say the prolonged presence of human beings – is deemed so very problematic, that is apparently worth denying every passenger a basic degree of comfort before they board a crowded bus, in order to discourage it.

Particularly in the context of New Labour’s drive against anti-social behaviour, the mere presence of people came to be seen as some kind of social and civic ill. According to the Health and Safety Executive, “Groups of youths loitering around bus stations”, in itself, constitutes one of the “key risks” associated with the provision of public transport. One only has to consider what loitering actually means in order to realise how messed up this is. The simple presence of people, regardless of what they are doing, constitutes a “key risk” according to those responsible for our health and safety.

Police meanwhile enjoy incredibly elastic powers to treat unsanctioned sociability as a crime. A typical “Dispersal Order” gives cops the power to kick people out of an area whenever they have “reasonable grounds for believing that the presence or behaviour of a group of two or more people within the zone has resulted or is likely to result in any members of the public being intimidated, harassed, alarmed or distressed”. Such a criterion could easily be met by a group of youths in a gothic attire stood in a sleepy market town.

When it comes to people doing genuine harm to others – engaging in violence, or yelling insults or threats at others – I am all for the law going in hard. Anybody who has lived in London will know that thuggish elements – as well as corporations – can have the effect of privatising public space.

Yet designing cities in such a way as to make them uncomfortable for human beings in general hardly sends out the message that the city belongs to us all. Indeed, it does the very opposite.

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To contact Reuben email reuben@thethirdestate.net

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Reader Comments

stuart

They’re designed like that partly to stop homeless people sleeping on them. The same holds for those park benches that are convex in shape.

#1 
Written By stuart on July 6th, 2011 @ 5:56 pm
Gloria

Yup, though I think they’re designed like that to stop people rough sleeping rather than to stop them ‘loitering’ per se but it somes to the same thing in the end.

Couple of years ago in Berlin I came across a French artist who’d done a huge visual display of all the ‘anti-sites’ of Berlin and Paris – bits of public and private space designed so people couldn’t sit or sleep on/in them. So ingenious! Pot plants, spikes, zen gardens, undulating pebbles, broken glass….

#2 
Written By Gloria on July 6th, 2011 @ 6:33 pm
julia

It’s part of a generalised privatisation of public space, in which private space (preferably behind locked gates) is comfortable, and public space is increasingly alienating to humans.
The square in front of the British Library in Euston epitomises the hateful politics at the heart of this. The British Library is a public institution. It belongs to and is paid for by all of us. But of course “intellectuals” can’t be treated like those who are condemned to sit on street benches for long periods, so they have built a massive fence round the square and they lock it in the evening. The locking is pretty much symbolic, though, because few ordinary people dare to venture through those mighty gates just to hang out during the day.
A similar thing has happened with a large tract of land along the south side of the Thames: gates and barriers have sprung up and security guards protect the roads from “the public”. The last laugh is on the people who live in the shiny new flats around the docks there, though, because instead of vibrant local outdoor life, there’s an eerie, threatening silence, as the rich rush from their marble foyers to their underground garages.

#3 
Written By julia on July 6th, 2011 @ 7:11 pm
Hugh

The eerie silence is one of my favourite things about the South Bank at Vauxhall. MI6 looms above with a hundred cameras trained on the perimeter, and the courtyard fountains play into nothing.

One a serious note, we used to have some really great Stop and Search laws the abandonment of which led to current problems of loitering (and to anyone who has been trailed and mugged, or ‘started on’ whilst waiting somewhere public by a group too large to be shooed away by the majority, this is a problem, not a political scare), but they were gotten rid of because a high proportion of individuals arrested under them happened to have a similar skin colour (the reasons for this statistic probably have a lot to do with cultural differences between here and central/coastal Africa vis a vis where young men go to spend their spare time, but this merits a discussion outside of the scope here). New Labour’s replacement laws are your ‘egalitarian’ answer to the problem.

The obvious answer to the problem is to have laws which threaten loiterers with potential serious inconvenience (i.e. a frisk, a parade to the station), without actually criminalising loitering (i.e. on stop and search pretexts). This disincentivises hanging about ‘with intent’ without necessarily infringing civil liberties or necessitating the tiresome development of unpleasant public spaces. It would also disincentivise general hanging about without intent in contexts where the hangers-about would have reason to suppose a policemen might be suspicious of them (i.e. night time). This would be a shame insofar as the feeling of being free to hang around in the streets at night is worth protecting rather than people’s feeling of being safe at night, but I think the latter should probably win out.

#4 
Written By Hugh on July 7th, 2011 @ 12:48 am

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