Homeless in the Park

It’s a pattern I’ve seen repeatedly. A city park gets “taken over” by homeless people, druggies, and other so-called “undesirables,” and the so-called “respectable” citizens feel uncomfortable. The city responds by removing benches, picnic tables, and other amenities from the park. Or roping off the picnic pavilions and prohibiting their use without a permit.

Removing drinking fountains; closing restrooms, cutting down shrubbery … the idea being to get rid of any features that attract “undesirable” people.

For good measure, the city puts up a sign with a list of about a hundred rules including “No Sleeping” and “No Loitering” as well as forbidding alcohol and illegal drugs.

Can you see the problem with this? Is the park then suddenly packed with wholesome activity? Office workers sunning themselves at lunch; families carrying picnic baskets and pushing baby strollers at night and on the weekends; people of all different nationalities coming together for pick-up soccer games after the work day winds down; upright citizens walking their dogs in the early morning?

Of course not! Why? Because amenities have been removed, making the park less desirable. The park is as devoid of citizens engaged in wholesome activity as ever! In fact, it’s worse, because now that the benches are gone and there’s less shade, no one in their right mind wants to be here. So the old man who used to come sit on the bench and read a book once in a while, or the solitary office worker who’d come with her bag lunch sometimes, or the jogger who’d stop for a drink from the drinking fountain and maybe take a moment to enjoy the shade … No one like this ever uses the park anymore. (I’m not talking about a specific park here; this is a scenario I’ve seen played out repeatedly in many places.)

Meanwhile, the “undesirable” people are still there in full force. The only people who have nowhere else to go. The druggie shooting up or sleeping it off (so much for the “No Drugs or Alcohol” rule); the bedraggled man and woman engaged in some kind of transaction you don’t want to look at too closely; the filth-encrusted guy with his equally filthy backpack (we’re talking a level of filth that even a resolute non-germophobe like me can’t help but want to keep a distance from) … those folks are all still using the park. From their viewpoint, the benches and all were nice, but when push comes to shove, they’ll make do with the hard concrete, because they have no better place to go.

Maybe their numbers even grow, as whatever paltry civilizing influence used to be there is gone.

In her mind-expanding book Thinking in Systems: A Primer, Donella Meadows brought up the concept of “levers.” Levers are things you can push or pull to make some kind of change in a system. In the scenario described above, the park and surrounding area could be considered a system, and “amenities in the park” constitute a lever. By pushing the lever (in this case removing amenities), citizens and city officials hope to drive “bad” people out of the park, supposedly making it more desirable for “good” people.

Unfortunately they pushed the lever in the wrong direction, which not only didn’t fix the problem but made it arguably worse. Ms. Meadows points out that human beings are prone to do this: We see a problem, and we intuitively zero in on an appropriate lever … but we then push the lever in the wrong direction.

A big part of the solution is to retrain our minds and expand our thinking. I highly recommend Ms. Meadows’ book for this. I’ve been carrying the ebook around with me in my smartphone for years; it’s an invaluable reference. I’m finally thinking of buying a print copy for my permanent collection. Her presentation of a “hierarchy of leverage points” for effecting change is something I consider essential reading for activists, or anyone else looking to make a difference — in any arena.

So — amenities in the park. Obviously removing amenities didn’t produce the intended result. In fact, it made things worse.

So how about pushing the lever in the opposite direction — How about adding amenities? Might that work? What amenities might we add? What would entice Joe or Josephine Average Citizen to leave his or her cozy home, with its climate control and its cable entertainment bonanza, and go spend time in a little neighborhood park or a bigger city park?

I’ll write more on this later. In the meantime, think about what kinds of things would entice you (or already do entice you) to use your local park(s).

(By the way, it’s always funny to me to see a “No Loitering” sign in a park. I mean, if you can’t loiter in a park, where can you loiter?)

Further Reading:

Donella Meadows website. A trove of riches!