The bench... and the wood in the middle. Image by PoPville used with permission.

A couple weeks ago, someone nailed a huge piece of wood to the middle of a bench in Lamont Park in Mount Pleasant, presumably with the intent to keep people from lying down and sleeping on the bench. The wood is gone now, but this relates to bigger questions of how we want to use our space and who we want using our space. And, for anyone interested in the more academic side of urbanism: is this tactical urbanism? Is it good tactical urbanism?

News about the modified bench first surfaced on PoPville, where commenters voiced their displeasure with the change and offered to remove the barrier on their own. Others, on the other hand, said they didn’t understand why anyone would be napping on a bench in the first place.

Personally, I was appalled when I saw what had happened. One PoPville commenter said that in their seven years living near Lamont Park, nobody sleeping on the bench had caused an issue. If that’s the case, I wondered, which of my neighbors felt so passive-aggressive as to make such an outward public statement about who was and was not welcome, without any community input?

As a black American woman, albeit one who is often seen in public in business casual attire and graphic t-shirts with colorful jeans, would they be upset if they saw me taking a nap outside? Or even just sitting on the bench, eating and maybe bouncing around to whatever music is in my headphones?

And yes, commenters on the PoPville brought up issues of indecent exposure and catcalling. Those things are wrong. However, a bar across a bench would not keep people from exposing themselves in an upright position or screaming at me. Same with having benches at all, as you can catcall standing up.

I mention my background not because I want to make assumptions about what people think of me, but because what happened with this bench seems to have been born of assumptions about people of certain backgrounds.

There’s an urbanist angle to modifying public furniture

If you’re a planning nut like me, there’s an interesting side discussion here: tactical urbanism.

Tactical urbanism is the umbrella term used to describe a collection of low-cost, temporary changes to the built environment, usually in cities, intended to improve local neighbourhoods and city gathering places.

Examples include this bench, built around a tree on U Street, and this one in Sherman Circle. Another is this street I helped paint in my hometown, which served as a staging area for four straight weekends for a street festival open to the entire community:

Image by the author.

That bench on U Street provides more opportunities for people to sit down on a busy stretch in the District. My hometown example brought together people from all stripes in our community.

As a DIY addition, this piece of wood might be called tactical urbanism, but is it really? Knowing the men who literally wrote the book on Tactical Urbanism, and having helped others build projects that do follow this guideline, I don’t see how this bench project actually improves the public space.

Granted, the book does encourage people to not consult anyone when they make their tactical improvements. But there’s also the implied intent that changes are supposed to come from a place of goodwill.

Public space doesn’t mean “space for everyone you’re comfortable with”

We talk so much about how we love how this region has so many open park spaces and public transit. However, occasionally that means sharing public facilities with people who may not meet our expectations of who should be in a park.

And as long as they don’t physically or verbally abuse me, I have no problems with them being there. And if I don’t like their look, I’m checking my own ideas of who is entitled to public space.

Kristen Jeffers is a writer and advocate whose site The Black Urbanist shares her thoughts on land use and mobility from the perspective of a black Southern femme person, and helps other black urbanists worldwide share their story and find connections. She's a native North Carolinian, and after trying out Baltimore’s Bolton Hill neighborhood, she's returned to DC’s Park View neighborhood and plans to stay for a bit.