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Making the Public Realm Unwelcoming in Santa Monica, Lancaster

Guess which wins in the contest for public space: aesthetic interest, comfort, or fear?

Some months ago, the city of Santa Monica, which operates the Big Blue Bus, began installing new street furniture designed by Lorcan O'Herlihy Architects. According to news reports, the $7-million project took an unusually long five years to go from concepts to the installation of new bus stops.

Most riders hated them. From a driver's perspective, the vaguely vegetablish bus stops and minimalist seats had a certain whimsy. Street furniture in a high style but visually unobtrusive when seen at 35 miles an hour. For bus riders, the little canopies cast a handkerchief-sized patch of shade. The seats at the stops were cramped and uncomfortable and too few.

Aesthetic interest beat modest rider comfort. (If you've ever sat on a backless bus bench for 45 minutes waiting under the actinic light of late August, you know what one of the circles of Hell is like.)

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Angry riders wanted the return of the bench-style seating the architect-designed furniture had begun to replace. The BBB people pointed out, somewhat irrelevantly, that the new seats were better than nothing, hinted that benches could come back, decided not to bring them back, and ordered up new seats that are less cramped and have backs.

They still aren't like a bench where you can set grocery bags off the ground or lay a backpack while you wait.

Despite the humble utility and relative comfort of bench seating for waiting bus passengers, the BBB benches aren't ever coming back. The reason is fear.

The BBB website notes, "In the seven to ten years since the benches were installed, BBB and the Santa Monica Police Department received many complaints about loitering on the benches. They were filed by riders and owners of businesses. As such, BBB was assigned criteria for evaluating (seating) design proposals ... that included imperviousness to loitering by non-riders and vandalism, as difficult and uncomfortable as that may be to disclose."

And as Curbed LA dryly added, "So in other words, it's an uncomfortable chair in a place that doesn't get a lot of shade, so that people are discouraged from sitting on it."

As with everything having to do with the public realm, issues of design had immediately devolved into an argument about class, privilege, and the policing of shared space. Bus riders get left out of this argument, except as background noise.

I see where this is going. The BBB will congratulate itself on being responsive to riders by subtle modifications to the company's bus stop preferences. Santa Monica business owners will be reminded that city government is sensitive to their objections to homeless residents (whom the BBB euphemistically calls "loitering non-riders"). And the homeless of Santa Monica will make shift as best they can while the public space around them is systematically made even more inhumane out of distaste for the persons of homeless people.

Bus riders -- because we must -- will accept whatever insults to our self-regard are handed us, whether out of fear or aesthetic privilege, by the anxious keepers of the public realm.

Meanwhile in Lancaster, the paranoid-sounding mayor wants to close the city's Metrolink train station to prevent homeless residents of Los Angeles from using Lancaster's homeless shelters. Better to punish transit riders by quarantining the city, it seems, than engage in the long, costly, and frustrating effort to bring every city's homeless off the street.

And do I sound paranoid when I wonder if anxieties about aliens at the margins of the public realm are being used to drive us from all the common places where we used to gather and into the privatized "groves," "promenades," and "gated communities" that falsely promise an escape?

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