If more people use Clematis Street and the benches generally, some of the issues at the benches and the park may take care of themselves.
The City recently removed benches from the 200 and 300 blocks of Clematis Street, responding to business and community complaints about the downtown homeless population and panhandling, the Palm Beach Post reports.
Community reaction has been mixed. Downtown retailers generally favor the move, stating that the homeless people loitering and harassing people from the benches are causing a detrimental impact to their business.
Others are opposed to the action. Gauging the general sentiment on the Engage West Palm Facebook group, the arguments against moving the benches can be summed up as follows:
- The homeless population will just move elsewhere; in particular, the waterfront, where there are abundant permanent benches
- Ordinances against panhandling and sleeping in parks/on benches should be enforced first
- The community as a whole will suffer as a result of this action. Having adequate places to sit on Clematis is important, especially for elderly and disabled individuals.
Benches are part of a welcoming public realm. Photo before benches were removed.
Considering that Jan Gehl’s firm, Gehl Architects, recently visited West Palm Beach, it’s instructive to read some of Gehl’s thoughts on these matters. Gehl Architects is widely considered one of the leading experts on how successful public spaces function, and how to create the conditions for flourishing public life. In a 2005 interview at the NYU Wagner Rudin Center, a participant asked about benches and safety:
Following his lecture, Gehl opened the discussion to questions from attendees. A general sentiment among the attendees was the concern for safety. Gehl emphasized that niches and benches attract life, however one attendee worried that this would invite the homeless and perceived associated crime. Gehl responded that “putting in features to make people use areas more naturally would invite more people, and where there are more people there is more safety.”
Homelessness is a difficult issue and the solutions are never as clear cut as some would portray them. But the lessons of Gehl Architects might be applied to Clematis Street and the surrounding public space so that these areas are used more “naturally”, as Gehl puts it. Better public space should be the goal, rather than degrading the experience for all users. Cities need places to sit as much has they need good sidewalks and good streets to walk along. Attractive options for gathering, whether walking, sitting, or standing, are part of the magic of life in public spaces and I would hate to see West Palm Beach move in the other direction.
I don’t know the answer for how to make the benches work better for everyone, but I do know that one of the best firms in the world at public space design is working in West Palm Beach. If more people use Clematis Street and the benches in general, some of the issues at the benches and the park may take care of themselves.
We should do everything we can to leverage the tremendous opportunity presented by winning the recent Knight Foundation 8/80 cities grant and obtain advice on these issues from perhaps the preeminent public space design firm in the world.
Source: West Palm removes benches on Clematis Street