Editor’s Note: Since last Thursday, when we originally published this letter, the issue of the City’s removal of Ghent’s benches has gained a lot of traction among the community. The article itself has been Facebook “liked” over 700 times and received massive amounts of feedback. Moreover, a group of private citizens have started an online petition to bring the benches back. As of this morning the peitition still needs 1,750 signatures before it is delivered to Norfolk City officials. Click here to sign the petition. Additionally, Bill, the author of this letter, will be on local radio show “HearSay with Cathy Lewis” today at noon, so be sure to tune into 89.5 WHRV or stream it from the web. And finally, today at 5 pm concerned citizens will be meeting with representatives of the City of Norfolk at the section of Stockley Gardens that intersects with Olney Road, to discuss the issue. Click here for more info on that meeting.
Dear Norfolk City Council Members,
I am a Virginia certified Landscape Architect with a Masters degree in Environmental Design and Planning. You’ve probably spent time in spaces I’ve helped design—the Mary Pretlow Library in Oceanview, Mary’s Garden at the Chrysler Museum, the entrance to the Norfolk Botanical Gardens, Fraternity Row at Norfolk State University, or even the Doris Miller Aquatic Center in Newport News. I mention these places to show my years of experience, on top of formal education, creating urban spaces that respond to the always stated requirement of discouraging criminal activity.
As a courtesy, I will spare you immense boredom by merely stating that there are engineers and design professionals, like myself, who spend endless hours studying how things like benches impact a person’s use of public spaces. The seemingly smallest details—does it have arms or no arms, is it backless, what is the percentage of slope and width, what is the construction material of the seat—they can all be manipulated to determine how long a person feels comfortable sitting and, as a result, remaining in a public space.
Stockley Gardens, Norfolk
For that reason, I was extremely upset to hear that the public benches in Stockley Gardens and along the Hague have been hacked down and removed. Sadly, quick fixes meant to reassure some that “something is being done” rarely produce the desired long-term effect. In this case, there were design changes available that need not have penalized the general public and left us with the risk that someone will now step on a jagged piece of metal where a beloved bench once sat.
Allow me to offer another example of this kind of a short-sighted “solution.” The house next to me was once owned by the founder of the Botanical Gardens, who spent 40 years tending its gorgeous gardens until he passed away. The home was purchased by an owner looking for rental income. He brought in a crew to “improve” the property by cutting and mowing down all the trees, shrubs and flowers that had grown for decades to ensure no burglar would have a place to hide and attack his tenants while he’s in Florida effortlessly cashing their rent checks. Seven years later my neighbors and I still see a desolate, empty yard every morning.
There was a similar concern when I was designing the grounds of the Mary D. Pretlow library years ago about people living in the adjacent bus shelter possibly hiding in shrubbery or loitering on outdoor benches. Amusingly, the library doors leading to the outdoor spaces I designed are alarmed, so they’re not utilized as we expected. However, one afternoon I spoke with a gentleman on a bench who told me he has all the free time in the world to hang out in any city park he chooses but his favorite spot is on that bench under the live oak along Granby Street. Is he a park user, or a loiterer perpetrating a crime? Or is his presence someone’s perception of crime?
It’s now several years later and what’s interesting is that there are still people living in that bus stop. I have to wonder if the solution should be to tear it down? Should we also tear down that bench underneath the oak? Or maybe the oak so the sunlight drives the man off the bench into the shelter? The true answer is, this was never a landscape design issue or a horticultural issue—it’s an issue of addressing the deeper problem of homelessness and also adequately funding and enforcing our city codes and policing our public spaces. The removal of publicly funded infrastructure that is clearly functioning as intended, is not the answer here.
As a further point of reference, I also spent a few years living across the street from Stockley Gardens and always had only two complaints about the design of the park—that the female ginkgo trees drop a noxious fruit that makes the park reek each fall (a complaint shared by everyone), and an objection to the surrounding fence that visually cuts the residents off from their public space and subconsciously discourages them from using the space.
I’ve since moved to another neighborhood but still bicycle to Stockley Gardens and the Hague regularly and would stop and sit on the benches that have been taken down. Again I’m left to wonder, was there actual crime I wasn’t witnessing or was it someone’s “perception of crime” as they looked out their window on the far side of that dividing fence? Maybe I’m being perceived as a loiterer or an undesirable merely for being a stranger who no longer lives on their block?
Urban designer Jane Jacobs famously wrote that for urban spaces to be successful, “there must be eyes upon the street,” stating “nobody enjoys sitting on a stoop or looking out a window at an empty street. Almost nobody does such a thing. Large numbers of people entertain themselves, off and on, by watching street activity.” The removal of public benches, while a visible action that will appease some, is unfortunately a step away from that direction. It tells the public that we are not welcome to use that park; that it should be an empty void. Sadly, when our “eyes on the street” stop sitting in these public spaces, statistics typically show that “perception of crime” turns to actual crime.
Similarly, Frederick Laws Olmsted said of his great Central Park that it was vital for New Yorkers to have a public space where the elite owners of businesses and the lowliest of workers in their factories interacted. Stockley Gardens and the Hague must not be allowed to turn into semi-private spots where residents learn to distrust and limit the access of those who are strangers or may not look like them.
Central Park in New York
In conclusion, I urge the city council members to resist quick, easy and visible appeasements that compromise the long-term vibrancy of our urban spaces. Sadly, we live in a political climate and an economy where the professional expertise of urban designers, planners, and landscape architects have been eliminated by budget cuts. Instead, as the removal of these benches shows, we are mistakenly yielding to those who expediently but negligently use hacksaws to cut themselves off from the urban problems they don’t want to see outside their windows.
Dear council members, leave our benches and publicly funded amenities intact so that citizens may dawdle to contemplate the history of the cobblestones under our feet, watch the fireworks over the bay, or just say hello to strangers who might sit near us. Great urban spaces are never made by limiting public access or erecting barriers to their use; any urban designer would be happy to explain that — you just need to allow us back into that discussion.
William Speidel, PLA