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What the Occupy Movement Teaches Us About Our Cities

Updated on April 21, 2015

What Cities Can Learn from Occupiers

The Occupy camps around the United States have had their fair share of problems, to be sure: sanitation and trash pickup, lack of toilets and showers, theft, safety issues, a few assaults, and infiltration of the camps by the homeless, vagrants, and various criminals. I'm going to take the road less traveled. The problems at the Occupy camps were not the fault of the occupiers. In fact, the problems the cities experienced with the Occupiers turn a searchlight on the failure of those various cities to provide proper public facilities for all their citizens. Our cities (especially those where Occupiers have been evicted) have no cause for celebration; instead, it is time for our city planners and city councils to take a long, hard look at where their cities have failed the Occupiers, because it is there that these cities are failing all of their residents.

Colourful Toilet and Shower Doors at Beachfront Bar, by Paul Kennedy
Colourful Toilet and Shower Doors at Beachfront Bar, by Paul Kennedy | Source

The Issues at Occupy

Our public spaces need to be functional for everyone. The Occupations of public space pointed out, at a minimum, these flaws in our current municipal systems and facilities:

  • Lack of sanitation: why is there not proper sanitation available to every single public space in the city? If the city doesn't provide sanitation for city-owned facilities, who, exactly, is supposed to do it? Garbage pickup for public spaces seems to be the minimum standard. (On the other hand, if the city simply refused to provide garbage pickup for the Occupiers, then that is a shame the city has to face up to. Public space is for the public, not merely for the public the city government approves of.)
  • Public urination: if the city does not provide proper toilet facilities on city-owned property, who exactly is supposed to provide for proper toilet facilities? In fact, in most developed countries, large cities are full of clean, well-maintained public toilets that are free for both residents and visitors to use. Such facilities encourage pedestrians and tourists, and keep the streets cleaner; any money spent on maintaining the facilities is more than amply repaid by increased tourist dollars and money saved cleaning streets and sidewalks. In addition, public toilets are business-friendly, because people are apt to linger if public facilities are available.
  • Lack of showers and laundry facilities: Again, in most developed countries, free or low-cost showers and laundry (such as are available at truck stops across the country) are open to the public. Providing shower and laundry facilities to the public is much cheaper and easier than dealing with bedbugs and all the other problems caused by poor hygiene!
  • Theft: why are city-owned facilities not properly policed by local law enforcement, or at least tracked by technology such as inexpensive RFID chips on city-owned property? That way, if some item is stolen, its location can be tracked and the property recovered, and the miscreants who stole the property properly traced.
  • Safety issues: If the city places a grill on city property, why is the grill unsafe to use? The same safety issues are valid with regard for fencing, sidewalks, and other so-called "safety" issues on city facilities. Those facilities are for the use of the public as a whole, not just the use of people the city likes.
  • Assaults: why are our local public schools not teaching that assaulting people is not okay? Why are people not educated in what sexual assault is, and why are the penalties for this crime so unevenly enforced?
  • The homeless: Why are there even homeless people in the city at all? What is the city's role in making sure that everyone has a roof over their head at night? If the homeless are mentally ill, who is responsible for making sure that there is a facility for them to receive treatment? If the homeless are merely unemployed or have been foreclosed upon, where exactly does the city think they are supposed to go? In fact, numerous studies show that it is cheaper to house the homeless than to deal with the problems that having homeless people create.
  • Vagrants: why is there not a travelers' shelter or a similar facility for those people who are just passing through on their way somewhere else? In Europe, most cities have hostels which cost about $8.00 per night and the price includes breakfast. A hostel, even run for free, would be much cheaper and easier to maintain than locking people up in jail.
  • Criminals: another failure of local law enforcement and the local justice system. Sex offenders should register, and if they do not register, they should be sought out vigorously and put back in jail. Those on parole should be required to check in with their parole officers, and again, if they fail to do so, local authorities should make a concerted effort to discover their whereabouts and force them to keep the terms of their parole or send them back to prison. Turning criminals loose on the Occupy camps is a tactic used by repressive governments everywhere.

Homeless Shelter in Miami
Homeless Shelter in Miami | Source

In Conclusion

The problems experienced at various Occupations were not the problems of the Occupiers. Those problems are the failures of the local government to deal with endemic, systemic problems that exist in cities around the country. In large part, this is because of the philosophy that you don't give something away for free; however, studies and experience show that certain investments, given for free to the public, are amply repaid in savings in other areas. By Occupying various public spaces, in fact, the cities have been shown, in an eminently practical experiment, just where improvement in their municipal facilities is needed. So instead of spending tax dollars on suppressing free speech, local governments need to spend money to ensure that the residents of their cities are safe in their beds, whether that bed is in a house or a sleeping bag in a tent on city property, and that the general public has adequate facilities to enjoy public property.

Where Does Your City Need Improvement?

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