Monday, January 24, 2011

Whose sidewalks are they, anyway?

As I was trolling the internet for pedestrian news this week, I was disturbed to come across this story about the City of Santa Barbara's latest efforts to clear its downtown streets of itinerants and panhandlers. The city's redevelopment agency (sidenote: Santa Barbara needs a redevelopment agency??) plans to devote $50,000 to rearranging sidewalk benches in the city's shopping district so that they are perpendicular, rather than parallel, to the street.

Photo courtesy of Google Streetview
The idea is that this will make panhandling less lucrative for people sitting on the benches because they'll only be facing one direction, and thus have only half the opportunities to ask passersby for money. The backs will also be removed from several benches, further discouraging lingering. The city's actions stem from longstanding frustration on the part of downtown business people with the way the homeless use the sidewalks. "It's just like they've made the street their living room," one anonymous business owner complained. The hope is that changing the angle of the benches will force the homeless to relocate out of downtown.

Wow. There are so many things wrong with this idea, it's a little hard to know where to begin criticizing it.

Let's start with the most basic: Is there any evidence whatsoever to suggest that simply relocating a bench will convince panhandlers to move off State Street? I'm no expert on the subject, but mere logic will tell you that even soliciting only half the people on a city's busiest street is going to be more profitable than soliciting in both directions on a street with lower pedestrian traffic. Moreover, I don't see any particular reason that an enterprising  pandhandler wouldn't just turn around, sit on the sidewalk leaning against the bench, and keep on asking for money in both directions. In my mind, the likelihood of this project acheiving its intent is pretty low.

But let's probe futher at that intent. Does moving homeless people around so that rich tourists don't have to see them do anything to address the problem of homelessness? No. As one advocate rightly points out, if the city wants a meaningful solution to homelessness, it should devote $50,000 to homeless services, not public works.

And finally, there's the pedestrian perspective. By making downtown benches less useful for panhandlers, the city is also making them less useful for all the other people on the sidewalk. Santa Barbara has a wonderfully walkable downtown, and I hate to see city authorities mucking around with it in order to decrease that pedestrian friendliness.

Even more, I hate to see a handful of people defining what a sidewalk can--and can't--be used for. I've written a few times about Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris and Reina Ehrenfeucht's wonderful article outlining the many purposes of sidewalks. They argue that sidewalks can, and must, be places that serve a wide variety of needs, from basic survival to relaxation. Sidewalks are places where we encounter people who are different from us, and where we are confronted with issues that we might otherwise be able to conveniently ignore. If we over-sanitize our sidewalks, limiting how they can be used and who can use them, we miss out on some of the most important reasons to have sidewalks at all. Santa Barbara doesn't seem to get that, but I hope other cities will.

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