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.

“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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