People who live in and visit the Boston area are spoiled for public spaces, for places to enjoy nature, to play, relax, read, picnic, and engage with others. The city’s streets abound with quirky street festivals, public libraries, and dogs and children playing with Frisbees along the esplanade of the Charles River. Yet how many of these urban amenities and our ability to move around the city depend on good weather?
How many places does the city have where a pedestrian, biker, or homeless person can take refuge from a sudden downpour or from Boston’s famous winters? How many places are there to just sit, rest, or sleep, where no purchase is necessary, where no entrance fee is required? Does the city have the infrastructure and services in place to react quickly and efficiently to a snowstorm or rain, to permit people to move around the city without the protection afforded by a car? Is Boston a “fair-weather city,” which is pleasant, safe, and livable, only when the weather is nice?
In contrast, what is an “all-weather city? The historic core of Bologna, for instance, has many porticoes shading the streets to protect people from harsh weather. In other cities we have trees that provide shade, benches, outdoor picnic areas, roofed bus stops, and public restrooms that are available and open at all times. All these elements contribute to creating a street environment that is amenable in all types of weather. The Boston area does have many of these qualities: public libraries, where everyone is welcome in to read; the subway stations, some of which have signs stating the availability of public restrooms; even many indoor public and privately owned public spaces (private spaces that are legally required to be open to the public, such as Post Office Square and City Hall Plaza).
Not being a “fair-weather city,” however, also makes the city amenable for the homeless. The same inviting porticoes that protect people from rain and snow may also serve as a safe place to sleep in. Some cities tend to criminalized activities such as sleeping on the streets, loitering and begging, claiming that the homeless appropriate and privatize public space, and impede circulation. Places like Harvard Square take a mixed approach: while “loitering” and “being idle, noisy and disorderly” is prohibited in the main subway station, the homeless are a familiar sight on the square’s sidewalks and plazas. During the winter months those who can secure a place retreat to shelters like the one run by Harvard students, while others sleep under church and store doorways.
However, merely criminalizing some uses of public space and attempting to make the homeless invisible, does not address the underlying causes of homelessness. Furthermore, this also restricts the way everyone uses public space by forcing people to be on the move, never sitting in one place for too long, and even compromising our freedom to exercise our right to free speech, to gather, even to protest, in these spaces. These conflicting perceptions regarding how these spaces should be used have been recently highlighted by the Occupy movement.
Should urban design and public policy prioritize some uses of public space over others? How should cities tackle the issue of homelessness, while still guaranteeing freedom of speech and open access to public space?
Credits: Images by Rosabella Alvarez-Calderon. Data linked to sources.