“Steps are like ready-made seats” (so let’s make them uncomfortable)

Image from Your Local Guardian website

Adrian Short let me know about something going on in Sutton, Surrey, at the same time both fundamentally pathetic and indicative of the mindset of many public authorities in ‘dealing with’ emergent behaviour:

An area in Rosehill, known locally as “the steps”, is to be re-designed to stop young people sitting there.

Not only will the steps be made longer and more shallow to make them uncomfortable to sit on, but no handrail will be installed just in case teens decide to lean against it.

Explaining the need for the changes, St Helier Councillor David Callaghan said: “At the moment the steps are like ready-made seats so changes will be made to make the area less attractive to young people.

It’s well worth reading the readers’ comments, since – to many people’s apparent shock – Emma, a ‘young person’, actually read the article and responded with her thoughts and concerns, spurring the debate into what seems to be a microcosm of the attitudes, assumptions, prejudices and paranoia that define modern Britain’s schizophrenic attitude to its ‘young people’. The councillor quoted above responded too – near the bottom of the page – and Adrian’s demolition of his ‘understanding’ of young people is direct and eloquent:

One thing young people and older people have in common is a desire to be left alone to do their own thing, provided that they are not causing trouble to others. People like Emma and her friends are not. They do not want to be told that they can go to one place but not another. They do not want to be cajoled, corralled and organised by the state — they get enough of that at school. They certainly do not want to be disadvantaged as a group because those in charge — you — are unable to deal appropriately with a tiny minority of troublemakers in their midst.

EDIT: Adrian sends me a link to the council’s proposal [PDF, 55 kb] which contains a few real gems – as he puts it:

I really have no idea how they can write things like this with a straight face:

“It is normal practice to provide handrails to assist pedestrians. However, these have purposely been omitted from the proposals, as they could provide loiterers with something to lean against.”

and then,

“The scheme will cater for all sections of the local community.”

Wow.

47 thoughts on ““Steps are like ready-made seats” (so let’s make them uncomfortable)”

  1. This is a silly controversy inflated by you media types old and new. If there is a need for places to sit they should put in benches. People should not be sitting on stairs because it inconveniences those who need to use the stairs for going up and down. Whether the stair sitters are young or old is irrelevant.

  2. Coliseums figured out the use of stone steps to provide seating for people a couple of millenia ago (probably already known to ancients in times prior to the last ice age).

    If the Council were more canny they would install seats nearby. Then perhaps the kids wouldn’t sit on the steps.

    Alternatively, they could create even more sets of steps so the pesky kids would never build up enough of a critical mass to make one set a destination.

    If the council were really wicked they could unobstructively cover the steps with a 10 foot high set of perch wires – harnessing one pest (pigeons) to put out another. ;-)

  3. with nowhere to sit, these chaps will have no alternative but to sell drugs and practice grafitti.

  4. “…modern Britain’s schizophrenic attitude to its ‘young people”

    I presume that by “modern” you reflect back at least fifty years, past the droogs of Clockwork, past Mods and Rockers, beyond the War to a time when it was easier to just ship the troublesome youth to the colonies.

  5. This is a worthwhile initiative. Children and young adults need to be shown that there are social boundaries, and that certain behaviours aren’t acceptable in the public domain. Ideally, this understanding would be inculcated within the domain of the family. All around us, however, we see growing, physical evidence that the social contract is breaking down.

    Control through architecture is a relatively-benign form of social discipline, and can make a difference in those communities corroded by intimidating, anti-social behaviours.

    The liberal intelligentsia’s attempts to block design-based social intervention, by dint of their flawed, neo-existentialist philosophy, can only deepen suffering in socially-blighted communities. Moreover, the stark lack of compromise will very likely invite harsher measures and penalties, long term.

    1. “Children and young adults need to be shown that there are social boundaries, and that certain behaviors aren’t acceptable in the public domain”

      How on Earth is SITTING DOWN not acceptable!?!?

      Also, what if someone were not to see the step and trip up? Because some clever fellow’s not installed a handrail because some one might “lean on it” they fall flat on their face.

      Why bother wasting your time devising new ways to make youths live even harder?

  6. I’ve never been called a ‘media type’ before; thanks, kehg92y7hg8f75. But you’re right, along with Crosbie and others: if you don’t want people sitting on steps, give them a bench.

    Matt – fair point.

    Some of the comments over at Boing Boing and Flickr’s Public Space and its Discontents group are pretty incisive. As Tweeker puts it:

    The problem with putting benches in is that people might loiter upon them in a seated position.

    EDIT: More very well-reasoned discussion here.

  7. Alternatively they could give the kids somewhere interesting and fun to go to. As “Emma” said in one of her posts – “the park is too dangerous”. This is all a sad indictment of the times we live in.

    To quote another commenter:

    “If the Council had decided to make the area less attractive to old people, black people or homosexuals there would be loud calls for his resignation — and quite right, too. Why then are young people an acceptable target for this kind of vindictive rhetoric and treatment?”

  8. If the real reason for the changes is that the kids are blocking the stairs and forcing others to plow through them or go around , then that is a legitimate and proper response.
    They might actually be doing the right thing for “all sections “no matter how clumsily.

  9. @Duncan: because the answer to an atomizing society is to… atomize it even more by preventing or breaking up any possible aggregation. “Control through architecture” here will just make youngsters move to a different area, where NIMBY mechanics will again provoke new, more restrictive changes (CCTV, “mosquitoes”, clothes restrictions, etc etc…). In the end, there will be no “control”, just a nervous breakdown for everyone involved.

    What people need, here, is to address why “parks are too dangerous”, why there are no alternatives for young people to have “their own” spaces. Parks and green areas were created in urban areas for exactly this purpose: let people aggregate and socialize. Why are they becoming no-go areas? Why do people need to find stairs to sit on just to have a place where they can meet?

  10. If this is going to “cater to all members of the community” does that mean they don’t count their young people as part of the community? Give it 10 years and these kids will magically be more important to the council? That’s just beyond ridiculous.

  11. Are the parks actually that dangerous, or is this just more media induced paranoia? I imagine it’s like parents in the US afraid of child abduction by strangers… statistically so rare that having it affect your behavior is ridiculous, but presented as though it where a common occurrence. Perhaps what is needed is not a redesign of the steps, but more skepticism in the face of sensational media?

  12. Thanks for reporting this Dan! It’s sadly a typical council response that I have experienced in a few areas of the UK where I have lived: move on the youth. I recently helped deliver a large community contract putting in sculptural benches in a public place undergoing regeneration. The project has been well received except for cries from local residents to remove one bench as it affords young people somewhere to leave their belongings while they (against clear warnings) swim in the canal. It is sad that people can be so willing to degrade there own local environment by blocking amenities such as these, and the Sutton steps, just so that they can bury their heads from the real issues – instead just moving the issue on elsewhere.

  13. I live in New York and as kids all the kids in the neighborhood used to meet onthe steps of the metropitan Museum it was a grate placed to meet I do not know if they still do but if the kids just meet there and Hang out then what is the harm it is safe and they are not hurting anyone so let them be. Alturnatively give them acctivatys in schools and comunity centers my spell check is broken

  14. One could redesign steps you know, and I’m not sure if anyone has done this, but…

    One could have a continuously varying pitch between steps such that the pitch was regular only at the extremities, e.g. a 12′ width either end of a 60′ span. The steps in the central section could also gradually deform from a regular sawtooth to a more curvaceous waveform (more comfortable to sit on), even with two rows of steps mutating into one.

    You’d then no doubt have to erect a sign at the top saying “Caution: stone seats – not steps – use sides to descend”. ;-)

  15. @Duncan:

    Control through architecture isn’t benign, it’s pretty all-encompassing. If you remove something, no-one can use it, whether well or badly. That’s the end of it. The failure of the council here is to effectively discriminate between acceptable uses and users, and unacceptable ones.

    Children and young adults do indeed need to be shown that there are social boundaries. They learn these things by being trusted to use shared places and facilities well and by various forms of feedback and social control when they don’t. If you diminish the opportunities for people to mix in situations where they need to negotiate norms of behaviour and practise consideration you further erode the ability for anyone to learn. That applies to all people, of course, not just young ones.

    One misconception underlying these discussions is that there are two groups of people: innocent local residents who have a right to be protected from excessive nuisance, and noisy local youths who act without consideration. There is a third: well-behaved local youths who know where the boundaries are and don’t cause any trouble. This third group is being penalised due to the behaviour of the second and for the benefit of the first.

  16. Hrm.

    Regardless of if you’re a ‘young person’ or not… Think of all the places you ‘loiter’ during the day. In the hallway at the office? Outside your local McDonalds (before/after you order)? Outside a store? Imagine if all these places were ‘fixed’ so you could no longer loiter.

    Sounds depressing.

    Now, I wonder where the teens will congregate next. The steps may not have been ideal, but their next place may be worse for the Rosenhill council. Making the steps less comfortable will not stop them from congregating. Also, I wonder how long it will be before someone makes the council add handrails to the steps…

  17. “Whether the stair sitters are young or old is irrelevant.”

    Kehg, it IS relevant in this issue because the targets of this action are minors, who have no control or influence in the way the city or state as a whole runs things. Young adults may nearly have the cognitive measure of a legal, voting adult, but in the eyes of the law they are second-class citizens. They are a pest to simply be shooed away into appropriately designated areas- just like blacks in the segregated southern U.S.. As such, the age matters here.

    If these steps were frequented by elderly citizens, who carry with them a lot of political clout, the stairs would probably be made MORE comfortable to suit them, not less. To treat a group unfairly and attempt to deter them from having a peaceful, pleasant time is outright ageism, and it makes me absolutely sick.

  18. It is all great and good to be all outraged about this, unless you have had the experience of meeting a group of such feral children and having to confront them in this lovely UK of ours.

    I have been abused by children like these that had no business to be were they were (why is anybody under 16 “hanging around” without supervision?), so cry me a river pseudo liberals (I would said anarchists, liberalism is something different).

    Lets put things straight: stairs are not for sitting, no matter which way some people want to spin it. The council is rightly concerned about youngsters congregating in some public spaces because most likely they know this leads to problems in the locality. It is not like that everywhere, but unless you know the locality you can’t judge so lightly.

    If the council is failing to provide facilities for the youngsters to congregate this should be pointed out to them, but promoting disorder (oh the oppression! to put some order in how we relate with each other! The long arm of Big Brother is upon us!) is not really a good policy for convivial existence.

  19. I’m a geezer, and I want handrails so I can safely access and egress my fecking park. Don’t mess with me, Junior, or I’ll have you wearing your ass for a hat.

    Kids in the way? I let them know I’m coming. They move. Bless ‘em.

    Plus they grow up to vote.

    Call me Miss Gruntled.

  20. Erika Price:

    For bunnies sakes, grow up.

    Children have very few rights in any society for a variety of reasons, mostly because their inexperience.

    Since it would be completely unrealistic to evaluate each individual to asses if they have reach adulthood, the most practical step is to name a cur off age. In the UK and other countries this is in a mess because different adult behaviours are accepted at different ages, in other places they define a cut off age for adulthood and there are activities not allowed before then, this may be too broad, but at least is very clear.

    Frankly to compare children in the same breath as adults segregated by racism is completely puerile.

  21. It appears to me that those who think this change in architecture will make any difference to the situation are sadly mistaken. This action does nothing to address the source of the “problem,” i.e. the masses of bored teenagers in urban and suburban western society. Back home in Canada we used the carrot as well as the stick, if you’ll pardon the metaphor: we built a great big skate park and a recreation centre for kids to attend. It may sound crazy, but providing somewhere else for teens to go might work better than making the steps uncomfortable. And hey, if it were me, I’d just sit on the new, uncomfortable steps: old folks may need seat-shaped stairs to sit on, but while you’re still young you can sit just about anywhere in comfort. ^__^ lol.

  22. Sad, sad instance of the narrow mindset of community government and planning almost all over the world. Social Order comes from understanding, flexibility and negotiation, not from ignorance, rigid codes and forceful imposition.

    What would Christopher Alexander do?

  23. hahahahaha

    coming up next: Ground outlawed to stop people from hanging around on it.

    wtf? these people will vote one day soon…

  24. It appalls me that people would automatically judge the whole based on the few. Children in general are not evil, and treating them as such will simply spawn dissent that children and youth do not know how to communicate properly, and indeed are not even given a voice to do so.

    Tzctlpc have you ever perhaps considered that the reason you are being abused by these kids is because the UK has given them so few options? You keep the old world “seen and not heard” mentality that has failed repeatedly since the dawn of time and then whine and complain when the youth do not bow to your will, yet raise them to be individuals and “Unique snowflakes”. Hypocrisy is very evident in the eyes of youth.

    Ever think perhaps calling them feral might perhaps be part of the problem? you marginalize a group for long enough and they will start to believe you, or stop caring what you think.

    Perhaps treating them as humans, not adults perhaps but members of the same race, would help them along a bit, I think you show your age with this “get off my lawn” mentality.

    And for bunnies sake I am grown up, try growing a bit more human.

  25. @tzctlpc, and more specifically, Duncan Holland.
    Jesus Christ.
    You folks are complete douches.
    “Ah, no! Until you’ve met these feral children, you’re in no place to judge!”
    Or, worse, “The social contract is breaking down! The sky is falling!”
    I’ve lived in the worst neighborhoods of the worst cities in some of the worst countries.
    You know what matters? Smiling. Being kind. Not being a douchebag to your fellow man/woman.
    What we have here is the alienation of the city fathers/mothers to the spawn of the citizens they are supposed to be looking after.
    Shut-ins, the socially-anxious, and the toadies to authoritarianism are not, thankfully, in charge. But more regrettable is that the city planners aren’t, typically, architects. People think you can discourage the RIGHT TO ASSEMBLY by putting bits of steel on park benches. Alas, they’re right.
    But this is what has happened: The homeless, the youth, the otherwise rights-deprived and downtrodden are being messed with, yet again, by ignorant individuals who have never spent a night on a park bench.
    Screw them, and you, Duncan and Tzc..etc.

    ~Crash

  26. What gets me about these sorts of things is that the same people who have no problem with ideas like “rearchitecting stairs to keep kids from (gasp!) sitting there” have problems understanding why senior citizens get marginalized by younger folks.

  27. John, Pete0309:
    I’ve been to the New York Metropolitan Art Museum, and, while I don’t know about the stairs, I do know that they won’t let you sit on the floor of the large entry hall, even if you’ve been stranded in said room for two hours by a mislaid tour bus and all the benches & chairs are occupied.

  28. It might be surprising to hear, but speaking as a long-time young person (21 yrs so far) I have to say that in most circumstances I prefer steps to benches.

    A park bench insists upon a certain number of people, facing a certain direction (as a rule, the more form fitting a bench is the less you can address anyone except someone facing straight in front of you). They are often built facing gravel or grungy concrete sidewalks, which limits the number of people willing to sit on the ground.
    It seems as though most park benches are built for two people to sit on, neither one interacting with the other, and both either alone, or addressing a younger person directly in front of them (as why would one similarly aged person get better seating than another? The lone exceptions are chess-style seating (two benches facing each other with a low table in between), or picnic benches. Both are decent, but are best as one option among many. Also see imaginative solutions like Vienna’s Museum’s Quarter seating.

    Steps, on the other hand, have infinitely expandable seating. While they are still oriented, there is still greater flexibility in directions you can face, poses you can sit in, and ability to re-seat if you want to talk to a specific audience. The format lends itself to multiple small groups of people that can form and disintegrate as needed. Steps are also a communal location in a larger sense: a place where you can meet new people, chat with old friends, and be continually informed of the events of the day.
    My favorite memories of Rome are of the Spanish Steps. My favorite memories of Paris are of talking to people on the steps around Montmartre and Sacre Coeur, and the steps of the Pantheon.

    Having said all that, I understand that steps are not specifically designed with my age group in mind. Certainly people should be able to walk up and down them. But if walking past young people is somehow a problem, even if they clog up these particular steps, then I’d say that the steps are the symptom, not the cause, and dealing with this “problem” is only going to make something worse pop up somewhere else. Don’t punish kids for being aware that architecture aids them in their development as caring, social beings.

  29. I’ve started a Facebook group called “Save Our Steps at Rosehill” to oppose the Council’s plans to modify the steps.

    Anyone who’s interested in seeing how this pans out or who may be able to help is welcome to join. You don’t have to be local. Sign up to preserve good public space and oppose the demonisation of young people.

    http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=14791498321

  30. This action does nothing to address the source of the “problem,” i.e. the masses of bored teenagers in urban and suburban western society. Back home in Canada we used the carrot as well as the stick, if you’ll pardon the metaphor: we built a great big skate park and a recreation centre for kids to attend

    That would make sense if the same problem behaviours didn’t occur where plenty of facilities are available. Then more excuses are brought forth.

  31. If the people want social spaces, create and facilitate them. Why attempt to remove/prevent the people’s creation of social spaces?

    Not only create facing benches (perhaps tripartite to avoid any subliminal polarisation – no design is without effect), but have a range of such social spaces, perhaps all the way up to public debating spaces – ooh, dangerous.

    And by all means extract multiple use out of the same facilities, e.g. concave stone terraces as both sociable seating and functional steps, or auditoriums for public congregation, debate, and theatrical performance.

    Perhaps the Victorians instilled in all of our worthies the idea that public spaces should be serene and admired for their vacant aesthetic, than utilised as places where the public can meet, converse, and entertain each other. Moreover, that the least desirable people in public spaces are children, who should be seen and not heard.

    There is an obscure location in the town of Lewes (Castle Precincts car park) where three stone benches lie in a circle. Being in a gloomy out of the way location rather than a centre piece of the town, it is more popular with hardy youngsters than frail adults.

  32. London has lots of places where adults are allowed to hang around and they do. Young people do too for that matter. Maybe Picadilly circus ought to be redesigned to get rid of all those bothersome tourists.

  33. Since when does sitting down fall under “certain behaviours aren’t acceptable in the public domain”?

    Insane.

  34. I live in Philadelphia, where they outlawed skateboarding at the infamous Love Park. Since then, hundreds of thousands of fines have been given out to the kids that come there to skate. 100% of all skateboarding fines have been paid. They all feel like they have just paid for their right to skate there.

    Although I dont understand the theory of taking away things kids do that are in public and not disruptive, you will not accomplish it. They will just sit in the grass next to the steps. Give them something to do or a place to go that doesnt cost anything, since they dont have jobs or money that is what it seems they are trying to do anyway. Oh, wait, there is no money in that, why would anyone do that.

  35. so, they make the steps wider and shallower, show them what’s up by lying down on them, they should be like little cots lmao

  36. question: who here has read _The Phantom Toll Booth?_
    there is a scene from it placed in a town where everyone rushes from point A to point B, head down, never socializing or enjoying the scenery, or “stopping to smell the roses.” The entire city has begun to disapear. All of the trees, flowers, buildings, and other beauties. I know it’s only fiction, but it sounds horrible, doesn’t it? If we make it so young people can not “hang out” or loiter anywhere, it will become their habit, then they will grow up, accustomed to never smelling the roses, and the world will eventually be controlled by people who don’t care about beauty or spontanianity (sp?). I’m sorry if you don;t agree that that sounds bad.

    Also, when young people loiter, how is that “anti-social”? they are surrounding themselves with friends! They may be escaping broken homes, or just enjoying friends in a stress-free enviornment.

    I must also echo the arguments of others, if things were done to cause discomfort to a certain race or gender, the whole country would be up in arms, defending the people.

    Treating young people as delinquents will only make it worse. If people are accepted by society, they are more likely to behave accoring to social standards. Keep in mind, that today’s youth will be paying for today’s adults’ social security/health care tomorrow…

    (sorry for the long-windedness, I was quite indignant about this)

  37. There are in fact design guidelines for steps, in terms of ratio of length to height, so that people may safely walk up and down them without falling over. Provision of a handrail is also a good idea to help prevent falls. If the council changes the design too much then they can expect people to fall over. I’d say that if council has documented its decision to make the steps non-standard and to remove a handrail then they’d probably struggle to defend a claim against them for personal injury in this case.

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