Residents of Iowa City continue to protest the installation of new benches on the Ped Mall, which they believe were purposefully chosen to inhibit certain behavior in the space. And they’ve uncovered earlier discussions by decision-makers that back up their assertion.
Members of the Iowa City Catholic Worker House organized a “sleep in” this week to call further attention to the new benches with center armrests. The armrests, which fail to meet recommended design standards for aiding mobility for the elderly or those with disabilities, prevent the public from comfortably lying down.
Worker House and other community members say this is the latest salvo by the city in an effort to push those experiencing homelessness or poverty from the public space. City officials say they hoped to curb public behavior, but not in that way. They contend the purpose of the center armrests was to create the illusion of additional seating, to entice people to sit next to each other and better use the benches.
As I wrote before, 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. Worker House members highlighted transcripts from those earlier discussions that specifically connect the armrests with an intent city officials haven’t acknowledged.
Current Mayor Jim Throgmorton, a council member at the time, noted “a friend suggested the possibility of inserting … in order to deal with the sleeping on benches challenge … a new armrail in the middle of the benches.”
He added, “You know, that makes it pretty hard to stretch out and sleep. And I know, I’ve slept on those benches before, you know, so I know what it’s like right now but … so that’s a possibility.”
City Manager Geoff Fruin circles back to Throgmorton’s comments later in the meeting during a discussion on what other cities have done to correct unwanted and undesirable public behavior. He says there is no “silver bullet” to such challenges and appears to recommend a multifaceted approach encompassing regulation and design.
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“Physical design, Jim, as you alluded to with the benches, plays a large role,” Fruin said. “And not just the design of the benches, but how you design the public spaces, how you design the planters, the walkways, the lighting, all those things come into it. So, we want to continue down that path as well.”
At best, city leaders are being disingenuous about their full intent. At worst, they purposefully chose to usurp Eighth Amendment protections for public sleeping.
Pointing out this discrepancy takes nothing away from other work city leaders have done in their quest to effectively end homelessness and address poverty. New shelters and partnerships still should be celebrated.
But agreeing, now that a self-proclaimed problem area has been modified by exclusionary design, to halt use of these benches, doesn’t change the fact that leaders purposefully chose to limit public use of a public space in the most underhanded way possible.
• Comments: @LyndaIowa, (319) 368-8513, firstname.lastname@example.org