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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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