Your Village: Are the new Ped Mall benches hostile to the homeless?

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A new three-seat bench installed in the Iowa City Pedestrian Mall. Friday, Nov 30, 2018. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Everyone is curious about the new benches on the Ped Mall. Are they an example of hostile architecture, designed to make life harder on the homeless? Or are they designed that way to be ADA-compliant? Or is there another line of thought behind this particular choice in benches? —Nik, Iowa City, via email

The answers, in brief (and in order), are not intentionally, not exactly and yes. For fuller answers, it’s best to take the questions in reverse order.

As part of the ongoing Ped Mall Improvement Project, the 85 benches that were in place when the project began, which only had armrests at each end, are being replaced by 70 new ones, all of which have armrests in the middle as well. The 47 shorter benches have a single armrest in the center, and 23 longer benches have two armrests, creating three sections for people to sit in.

One of the improvement project’s goals was increasing the amount of seating available on the Ped Mall, according to Iowa City Senior Civil Engineer Scott Sovers, who is overseeing the project.

“By and large, if you have a bench that doesn’t have a center armrest, you find a lot of people aren’t comfortable sitting on the bench when there’s someone they don’t know already sitting on the bench,” Sovers told Little Village.

The idea is that having an armrest in the middle creates separate spaces for people, and instead of ending up with one person per bench, two or three will sit comfortably — separately, but together.

Along with new benches, there will be table and seats sets, tiered seating at the Weather Dance Fountain and seat walls throughout the Ped Mall.

“We’re offering roughly 213 seating options for folks,” Sovers said, “whereas before, we were at roughly 178.”

Improving accessibility for everyone is also an official goal of the project. On social media some people have suggested that extra armrests are required by the American with Disabilities Act (ADA). They’re not.

Section 903 of the ADA compliance guidelines covers benches, and while it discusses such topics as the height of a bench seat (between 17 and 19 inches off the ground) and whether a bench should offer back support (yes), it doesn’t mention armrests at all.

Although ADA guidelines don’t cite bench armrests, they are mentioned in almost every article on “hostile architecture,” the term for designs that discourage the homeless from using a public space.

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“This year, #hostilearchitecture is trending, with photos of park benches with armrests down the middle that can render them impossible for sleeping, boulders planted into former homeless gathering places, and sprinklers engineered in public spaces for the presumed purpose of watering squatters, not greenery,” Architectural Digest wrote in March.

Discouraging people from stretching out on Ped Mall benches wasn’t a consideration when the new design was selected, Sovers said. And the issue never came up during the three public input sessions prior to the start of the project, all of which featured illustrations of the new benches, and all of which Little Village attended.

“By and large, the feedback we got was very positive on the benches we selected,” Sovers said. “There was never a time where anybody brought up concerns about the ability to lay down on the benches.”

Still, it’s understandable why people might suspect Iowa City was trying to quietly push the homeless out of the Ped Mall. In 2013, the city council passed new ordinances prohibiting people from lying down on Ped Mall or other downtown benches between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m., or to store personal possessions in any outdoor public space downtown (for example, by keeping them in a shopping cart).

Supporters of the ordinances insisted they weren’t about the excluding the homeless, but just aimed at ending certain unwanted behavior. During the council meeting when the ordinances were approved, supporters did acknowledge the homeless were virtually the only ones who engaged in that unwanted behavior, but still insisted the new rules weren’t targeting the homeless.

Sovers noted the bench replacement on the Ped Mall already happened elsewhere downtown two years ago. During the 2016 improvement project on Washington Street, new benches with center armrests were installed.

“As far as I know, no one has ever raised any objections about the design of those benches,” he said.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 254.

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  1. Are the new Ped Mall benches hostile to the homeless? I SURE HOPE SO. Downtown has a serious problem with vagrants, beggars and mentally challenged, particularly in warmer weather. Usually it’s just annoying or obnoxious but it sometimes turns harassing and threatening. I’ve been threatened. I’ve been badgered. I’ve been harassed and felt unsafe. Anything that can discourage that kind of behavior is welcome. And now, if police can start issuing proper tickets to those who illegally ride their bikes on the sidewalks and ped mall I’d be even happier. I’ve been run into several times.

  2. I agree with Andrew above, but it’s not necessarily “the homeless” it’s the panhandlers/ beggers/ mentally ill- (scream and yellers) that need to go. i would be very very willing to bet a decent number of the panhandlers aren’t even homeless. they shouldn’t be allowed to loiter within so many feet of a ATM or business. as some who works downtown and walks through the ped mall 3times a day it it super frustrating and annoying to continually have the same people begging for money. I once even had a black many call me a F’ing N-word when i refused to give him money after he jumped in front of me slurring because he was so intoxicated. i have witnessed groups of people standing in a circle smoking pot. because they know they cops won’t do anything about it. the foreign exchange students i see are always getting harassed. i feel as though are are several different organizations in iowa city that could assist with the homeless to help them be not homeless, but several of them just that life style. they make it their job. i’ve seen them eating at Estella having a breakfast burrito. i have them at BWW drinking beer. I can’t even afford to do that! if people would just stop giving them handouts they would go away and find somewhere else to go or get a job.

  3. Most of the above comments aren’t worth refuting because they are ridiculous (“I’ve seen a person experiencing homelessness purchase and eat food in public!”). However, I would challenge the concerned individuals above to walk through the ped mall and acknowledge and greet people as they are passing, rather than be uncomfortable and judgmental while walking in a public space. One might be surprised to find that negative interactions are often the product of negativity that one presents. As far as the issue of homelessness itself, try to do some learning about it. Give time, talent, or treasure to the organizations that are referenced in the posts above if you truly want to work towards a solution to the problem. If in the end you still don’t feel comfortable being around or interacting with people in your community whom you may not identify with, then I suppose it is you who should probably stay out of public spaces.

  4. It is discouraging that my former neighbors can consider another’s life so cheap.

    During the decade that I lived and worked downtown, I’ve never been assaulted or harassed by beggars or panhandlers. Called names? Had to step slightly out of the way? Sure. But I brush it off readily, secure in the knowledge that I am fortunate enough to have food in my fridge and a warm place to sleep at the end of the day.

    I can’t say the same for the drunken mobs who inhabit the Ped Mall every evening. At any rate, most people are annoying or obnoxious in some aspect.

    I’m also thankful to not be suffering from a debilitating mental illness. To judge another’s circumstances in that regard is more than telling. Just be grateful that you don’t have to live and cope with such a challenge.

    There’s the claim that some individual’s homelessness is willful. Perhaps so. In a few cases, I am certain. But I recall when these people were considered regulars of the community. You knew their name (or rather, their given moniker); They were undoubtedly interesting characters, always good for a tale or two, even if some of those stories were a bit nonsensical. On one notable occasion, a less fortunate man than myself had the audacity to sit down in a cafe next to me, and discuss the local happenings over coffee — coffee that he had bought for the both of us, only in exchange for simple neighborly pleasantries.

    Even so, starving is never a likely preference. At least that is the impression I received from my time working at the pantries. I could recognize that the aforementioned regulars also suffered from physical ailments or mental confusion. To speak of these people, these human lives, as mere pests to be eradicated admits a disturbing degree of shameful conceit.

    The city should focus on the cause, not the symptoms. These types of measures only aggravate the issue. Eventually those who are shut out will cluster and become desperate, rather than vanish into thin air and out of mind.

    It’s also clear that Mr. Sovers is not a habitue of public transportation, by the perspective he expresses. He provides no factual basis for the claim that these styles of benches allow for additional practical seating.

    I made the point that I have since moved away. My reasons were due to unprofessional policing, and the disingenuous actions of city staff and officials. It has been difficult for many long-time downtown business owners to sustain the past few years, and it has little to do with the homeless population. To say otherwise is only an excuse. I said good riddance to Iowa City with a heavy heart, but liberating myself of this city’s otiose ostentations has been good for me.

    I urge everyone in the community to assist those in need as equals. Communities — cities depend on the cooperation of all, the wealthy, the poor; the smart, and the strong. Circumstances change, and one day you may be the one asking, “who is there to help me?”

  5. As someone with family members who struggle with treated schizophrenia and others with substance abuse disorders, I find comments like Andrew’s and keep the homeless out!’s horrifying. What are They doing to help these people other than pointing fingers or saying they need to be removed as if they were rats? Treat people with respect and compassion and you will receive the same back. Treat people like rats and they will try to steal your food, chew up your possessions and try to bite when threatened.

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