All around DC there are structures designed for the public that aren’t actually very pleasant or easy to use, like dog ears on ledges, third armrests through the middle of public benches, and ridges in common seating areas. These things are there for a reason, but do they actually limit people’s ability to live in the environment around them?
In July, well-known radio producer Roman Mars invited authors Gordan Savicic and Selena Savic onto his podcast, 99% invisible. Savicic and Savic co-edited a book called Unpleasant Design, which looks at the idea that while some things are built with a purpose that might seem reasonable—for example, third armrests on benches that keep people from sleeping on them and therefore giving more people space to sit—accomplish a greater effect of shaping city environments and how citizens interact with them without those citizens’ consent.
There are examples in cities across the world. For example, in Europe, some store owners deter teens from loitering out front by playing classical music or high-frequency sounds, or using pink lighting to make pimples on their face stand out (particularly cruel!).
Should our cities ban skateboarding? Should they ban homelessness?
In most instances, skateboarding is legal unless posted otherwise. But like many other cities, DC has incorporated “dog ears” to deter skaters from using public spaces. This is de facto prohibition, and even though it’s subtle, it sends a clear message that skating is not particularly welcome.
Many people would argue that skateboarding is one of this country’s longstanding forms of expression— it makes space more inviting, and it gives people a reason to come and sit and look. If you value skateboarding as a way of breathing life into a city, public design that bars people from doing it is problematic.
Beyond skateboarding, there are also designs that stop people from doing more basic, fundamental things. In fact, while DC is known for its expansive “public” spaces like the National Mall, Smithsonian Museums, and numerous parks and squares, some people might tell you that these places really aren’t very public at all.
DC has a homeless crisis, with the homeless population having risen 30 percent in the last year. And while Mayor Muriel Bowser has stated that combating homelessness will be a staple of her tenure, those who are left out have to exist somewhere. More likely than not, the aforementioned public spaces make the most sense.
But check out these public benches and how they keep people— homeless or not&mdashl from comfortably and freely using them:
The two armrests on the end of the bench would only allow a very short person to lie down, but the third armrest through the middle makes it impossible for most.
Unpleasant design negates usable public space, which is the hallmark of a thriving city
To be fair, unpleasant design, as a whole, is well intentioned. The risk in any public space is that a few people acting out can make the space unusable to everybody.
When it comes to the dog ears on ledges, skateboarding can damage property and possibly put people in harm’s way, and lying down uses up more park bench space so fewer people can sit. In those ways, unpleasant design can make public space more inviting.
But where is the line? Who decides what should be forbidden and what shouldn’t? Why not tell someone that if they want to eat lunch, they need to go to a restaurant rather than sit and eat in the park? Or that if they want to read, they need to go to a library rather than sit and do it on a public bench?
Skateboarding is an art form and organic culture in its own right, and limiting skateboarders use of public space is counterintuitive to why public space exists— to bring people together and allow cultures to thrive.
And regarding the homeless, it is entirely unfair to restrict access to an individual who literally has nowhere else to go. It is especially unfair when design restricts access to the very harmless activity of lying down.
So at what point does restricting human activity take the “public” out of public space? I’d say that it’s when something gets built into the environment; at that point, it becomes non-negotiable. Laws can restrict activities, but you can protest and repeal those.
We should be mindful of what we build, what effect it has, and on whom If you restrict people’s ability to use public space too much, then nobody goes there at all. I would argue that if space is truly public, then people on skateboards or people without homes are as entitled to use it as anyone else.