Opposition to public benches demonstrates urban challenges

A sad story from San Francisco about a merchant group opposing the redesign of a historic public space leading to a central transit station because it will include benches. Equally disheartening is that some of the plans call for reducing the amount of plants and planter boxes. The fear of homelessness and vandalism is a great challenge to creating livable and enjoyable public spaces in the US and Europe, and affects both civic and grassroots urban improvements. Sad.

(Image of Martin Nicolausson seesaw bench, designed to require cooperation between strangers and to generate conversation, via The Fire Wire blog).

Damage to small public garden in San Francisco

Although I am now living in Tokyo, across the Pacific in San Francisco I have a public garden that extends onto the sidewalk. Last week I heard by email from a neighbor that he called the police non-emergency number at 7 in the evening because someone was sleeping in front of my building. A few days later a friend asked if I knew that my plants got “smushed” and then Twittered the photo above.

The photo above shows the damage and garbage left behind. Although I have marveled at the safety of Tokyo streets that permits salary men (and ladies) to be passed out in public, Tokyo people are shocked when I tell them how filthy the streets of San Francisco are. Garbage, vandalism, and thousands of people living in the streets with obvious mental health and heavy drug addictions.

I have no easy answer for the break-down in social bonds that allows so much human misery to exist in public in the world’s richest country. In my observations, the wealthy of San Francisco live on hills that are either inaccessible to the homeless or policed more severely; the wealthy use private automobiles and ignore the streets. Those in mixed income neighborhoods become accustomed to dirty and unsafe public streets, and make themselves comfortable inside their homes.

Streets are the largest public spaces in any city. It is sad when they are feared more than enjoyed.

Public behavior: Tokyo’s advantage in building a livable city

Vandalism of Paris' Velib, bike sharing program

A recent New York Times story about vandalism of Paris’ visionary Velib bike-sharing program highlighted an enormous advantage that Tokyo has in creating great public spaces: the respect that citizens pay to shared space and to each other.

To mitigate climate change, reduce traffic and clean the city’s air, Paris created a remarkable bike sharing program, with over 20,000 bicycles available throughout Paris at a very low rental price. With 50,000 to 150,000 daily trips, this bike-sharing program created a real impact on how residents and tourists traversed the city. Since 2007, more than 80% of the sturdy bicycles have been stolen or vandalized beyond repair.

The New York Times quotes Parisian police and sociologists who blame the attacks on “resentful, angry or anarchic youth” in a “socially divide Paris.”  Specific blame is given to suburban youth, the mostly poor immigrants who live in the outskirts of the city and view the bicycles as a symbol of urban privilege that they lack.

Compared to the extreme inequality in many global cities, Tokyo remains surprisingly safe and clean. This allows for some amazing new public spaces, from the wonderous Ginza Farm open to everyone and unguarded– disturbed in five months only by a raccoon hungry for one of its ducks (more on this later)– to the many common gardens and plants placed outside homes and shops.

Most Tokyo residents are unaware that their relative social harmony is unique. With public behavior the norm, there are unparalleled opportunities to create even more exciting new public spaces that revitalize human life connected to plants and wildlife. Public spaces open at night, habitats that require clean running water, valuable plants that require time and care to mature, the care that individuals and organizations invest in place-making are all more likely to be respected and allowed to thrive in Tokyo.

Velib poster