A park is a park is a park

The flap about smoking in parks illustrates how we've turned public spaces into morality plays.
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Skyway Park: both park and gathering place

The flap about smoking in parks illustrates how we've turned public spaces into morality plays.

The town has enjoyed a few laughs over the Seattle Parks Department's decisions to allow, not to allow, to allow but only if 25 feet apart, smoking in city parks. The waffling has been interpreted as a sign of Mayor McGinn's "shock and guffaw" style of governing, and as another skirmish in the war over Nannyism.

And one more thing, I would add: The flap is another illustration of how we use our public institutions as arenas for morality plays. Seattle parks, instead of being accountable as parks (safe, widely used, beautiful, flexible for regular park-goers, dog-walkers, and frisbee-tossers), often consider other, non-park agendas first. Are they helping to stamp out or stigmatize and shame smokers? Do they respect the rights of indigents? Do they replace each tree with two? Do they cut down on energy use?

To cite one example: Jim Ellis Freeway Park. (Disclosure: I'm active in the Freeway Park Neighborhood Association.) We've been working for years to restore the full water flow of the waterfall fountain that is the chief architectural feature of the Lawrence Halprin design for the park. Only one of three pumps is still working. Now they've been fixed but another city hall department is balking at letting two of them run at a time (with one as a spare) because of power consumption. Another fountain is held up by the search for low-power lights that can work underwater.

Worthy goals, to be sure, but illustrative of all the overlapping, cross-departmental goals that bog down progress, drive up costs, and committee-design things.

Similarly with safety, where for years we have been frustrated by how hard it is to get an officer to visit a park. Seattle Police rarely venture into a park, since the crime is petty and scattered. But they keep other security out of parks, as their turf. The Park Rangers program is very thinly spread across many parks, and resisted by the Police Officers Guild. About the only law enforcement agency that I've ever seen come in and arrest people (for drug dealing, mostly) come from Homeland Security, of all people, who protect the federal employees and their day care in an adjoining building.

The absence of police, in turn, is largely explained by tender consciences at City Council, who have argued for years that policing is tantamount to mistreating the poor and the homeless. Fair point, but once again, parks have been turned into morality arenas, not better parks for all the people. Gertrude Stein's famous line, "a rose is a rose is a rose" needs to be dusted off and applied to our neglected parks.


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