Staff Columnist

Iowa City controversy is bigger than the benches

The city often gathers feedback - but who shows up to give it?

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)

I came to this week’s Iowa City Council meeting prepared to write a much different column than this one.

The city has faced criticism the past few weeks over a seemingly mundane infrastructure update — benches on the downtown pedestrian mall. The newly installed model has a center arm, which critics allege is a barrier meant to keep homeless people from lying down to rest.

Iowa City Catholic Worker, an organization dedicated to caring for the poor, posted photos of the new benches on Facebook under the heading, “Do Iowa City’s new Ped Mall benches discriminate against the homeless?” The post drew dozens of angry comments, and a handful of news organizations spread the story as well.

My plan for this column was to pile on in criticizing the benches. I’m sensitive to the concern, especially as part of a broader context in which cities around the country impose policies that infringe on the rights of homeless people and their advocates, like outlawing free public meals or restricting panhandling. As anyone who reads my columns knows, I am eager to call out my local government leaders when they deserve it.

But at the council meeting this week, city staff and council members made a convincing case that their intention was to maximize seating space, not to crack down on lounging. The idea is that with the center divider, people feel more comfortable sharing a bench with a stranger. And as one local resident wrote in an email to council, the extra hand rail is helpful to those with limited mobility.

Sleepable benches are no substitute for a robust support system. To that end, the city is supporting a number of projects to address the roots of housing insecurity, including the local “housing first” program and the planned behavioral health access center. As a local social services director told me on the way in to the meeting, “Why are we even talking about benches?”

Iowa City’s bench controversy underscores a legitimate concern, but I don’t think it’s the benches themselves. Instead, the problem is the way local governments gather input from their citizens.

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The new benches are a small part of a much larger makeover of the downtown area, which has been in the works for more than five years and includes new Ped Mall bricks, trash cans, lights posts and more. City leaders hosted a series of public forums in 2013 to direct their plans. The product of that planning process — a 167-page “streetscape plan,” published in early 2014 — includes more than 50 references to benches.

Planners summarized, “The public complained about the ongoing loitering and about the groups that ‘hang out’ on the benches for extended periods of time.” Benches longer than 72 inches, they said, would get center arms.

The people who attend such city planning sessions are a self-selecting bunch, unlikely to include the least fortunate among us. We can’t reasonably blame the chronically homeless for not showing up to a streetscape planning event.

Instead, the challenge falls to city government. How can we bring together a diverse set of voices and pre-empt civic strife? There’s a question to sit and ponder.

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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