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San Francisco’s anti-homeless design is also anti-human, says NYT op-ed

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“New York Times” opinion piece is the latest salvo of complaint about SF’s unfriendly public spaces

City Hall, seen from the green lawn of the Memorial Plaze next to the Opera House across the street.
Memorial Court, opposite City Hall and Civic Center.
Photo by Dllu

Are cities like San Francisco combating urban blight or just making streets less hospitable and more socially striated? Allison Arieff, editorial director of the SF-based urban design outfit SPUR, took to the New York Times recently to argue the latter, turning a critical eye on some of the city’s least inviting innovations.

Says Arieff:

In the 1990s, San Francisco removed all of the benches from Civic Center Plaza. In 2001, all remaining seating in nearby United Nations Plaza was removed in the middle of the night. Over the years, public seating has been removed from virtually the entire city.

Decades after the full-scale seating removal in Civic Center Plaza, there is still nary a bench. Unfortunately, you cannot say the same for the number of unhoused who congregate there.

San Francisco and other cities are guilty of treating the symptoms instead of the problem, according to Arieff’s piece.

Cities and private property owners can drive homeless people, loitering teenagers, and other “undesirables” away from certain areas, but they’re just shuffling problems around and making urban spaces hostile to everyone else as well, alleges Arieff.

And it’s not just seating.

Arieff brings up issues ranging from bike lanes, to demolished basketball courts, to the supposedly urine-proof paint the city installed on certain San Francisco walls, which deflect unexpected streams of hydration back in the direction of its source.

(For the record, when San Francisco Magazine tested this technology in the field in 2015—using a water bottle instead of the organic process—it didn’t actually seem to do anything.)

Nor is this the first time SPUR’s criticisms about the city’s dearth of seating have appeared in the pages of the gray lady. SPUR director Gabriel Metcalf told the paper of record in 2012, “It makes the city that much less livable for everyone” when City Hall benched the benches.

A view of Civic Center Plaza from the dome of City Hall. Photo via city of San Francisco

Others have noticed this trend as well. In 2015, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Caille Millner noted, “SF loves anti-homeless design,” citing spikes in Safeway planter boxes, bars on Ferry building benches, and Mission Street benches that fold up at night.

Urban design critic John King refers to these touches as “defensive architecture.”

On the flip side, there are those who aim to make San Francisco a more human welcoming space. For example, local designer Chris Duderstadt’s guerilla-style Public Bench Project donates seating to neighborhoods.

“Though I have been active in promoting public space—being on a number of boards and committees—just making benches and placing them is often much more rewarding,” Duderstadt explained to 99 Percent Invisible.

“I dream of having a bench on each corner,” he says elsewhere.

A small amount of headway did come up on this issue earlier this year, at least when it comes to Civic Center seating, when Mayor Ed Lee’s office and the city’s Planning Department issued a January redesign proposal that referred to the area as “stripped” and “unwelcoming,” and specifically pointed out that “low-income and homeless residents [...] rely on the Civic Center.”

Every little bit helps. But as Arieff wisely points out, “inequality is escalating, and these spaces make that reality visible.”

Photo by Almonroth