Atlantic Cities

If You Want Nice People, Make Nice Places

If You Want Nice People, Make Nice Places
Courtesy: Pavement to Parks

"The biggest single obstacle to the provision of better public space is the undesirables problem," wrote William H. Whyte in his 1980 book The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. "They are themselves not too much of a problem. It is the actions taken to combat them that is the problem."

Whyte’s book has been a bible of sorts for urban planners since its release. But the municipal officials who have been running the public spaces of San Francisco have, in their zeal to keep the city’s large homeless population out of sight, ignored or forgotten Whyte’s core principle that "the best way to handle the problem of undesirables is to make a place attractive to everyone else."

Now that might be changing. A recent New York Times article says that the city is rethinking its policy of removing seating and generally making its downtown plazas as uncomfortable as possible:

San Francisco city planners are now working on plans that could reintroduce some outdoor seating along Market Street, the city’s major thoroughfare, from Civic Center to the Embarcadero. Granite benches were removed from Market Street in the 1990s after business owners complained about homeless people, according to a 2010 study.

Neil Hrushowy, an urban designer for the city who is working on the Market Street project, said that past planning based solely on "the fear of quote-unquote undesirables" was not good for urban design - and did not actually work.

The homeless problem has bedeviled San Francisco and its mayors for a generation now. The city’s policies have see-sawed wildly, and the results have sometimes been enough to tip an election, as when the homeless encampment Mayor Art Agnos allowed in front of City Hall in the early '90s became known as "Camp Agnos," and led in part to the get-tough administration of Frank Jordan.

More recently, Mayor Gavin Newsom touted the reduction in numbers of homeless people on his watch - while critics said that a significant part of that reduction could be traced to the bus tickets Newsom funded to get homeless people out of town altogether.

It’s a dysfunctional, angsty dynamic that has come to dominate much of the political discourse in a city that in prides itself on its liberal social policies. More shelters! No, not shelters, more housing! More handouts! Fewer handouts! More policing! Less policing! Let people camp on the sidewalk! Criminalize sitting on the sidewalk!

The one thing that has remained constant in all this is the degradation of the city’s public spaces, particularly downtown. Sometimes, as in the case of the bench removal, these places have been made uninviting, unpleasant, and unattractive intentionally. And as Whyte so famously pointed out, that makes them more likely to be dominated by the undesirables.

What has changed the city’s perspective? Well, at least in part, it has been the success of San Francisco’s “Pavement to Parks” program, in which small vacant areas and even parking spaces are inexpensively transformed into "parklets." It’s a program that is being seen as a national model.

But even those spaces have been drawn into the controversy over the homeless, according to the Times piece:

Scott Wiener, a supervisor who represents the Castro, has introduced legislation to prohibit people from smoking, camping or parking shopping carts in Jane Warner Plaza and nearby Harvey Milk Plaza.

The legislation, which Mr. Wiener said could be expanded to cover parklets across the city, has been met by an outcry from some old-time Castro leaders and advocates for the homeless.

Maybe Wiener and other San Francisco officials should crack open a copy of William Whyte’s book, in which he writes (in rather un-PC language):

Places designed in distrust get what is anticipated, and it is in them, ironically, that you will most likely find a wino. You will find winos elsewhere, but it is the empty places they prefer. It is in them that they look conspicuous – almost as if the design had been contrived to make them so.

Better seating and more comfortable plazas won’t solve San Francisco’s homeless problem. But neither will plazas "designed in distrust." In the meantime, the rest of the city’s people need a place to sit.

Full disclosure: I used to be on staff at Project for Public Spaces, a nonprofit that is founded on the principles of William H. Whyte.

All photos courtesy: Pavement to Parks

Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn. All posts »

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