In Defense of Loitering

Cities have tried to ban people from hanging around. This is a big mistake.

Not long after American inner cities started to empty of street life in the 1960s and 70s, government officials went for the benches. Benches encourage people to sit still. And sitting still is a quasi-crime in urban America commonly known as “loitering.” You may recognize its related anti-social behaviors: standing still, milling about and strolling a little too slowly.

It’s hard to remember how we got here, to criminalizing a leisurely pursuit that’s embraced on most European streets. But the cycle went something like this: Residents moved out of cities and stopped using their public spaces and streets. The only people still walking them were deemed riffraff: the homeless, jobless and, officials feared, gang members and prostitutes.

And so cities took away the benches (or made them un-sittable) and put up signs warning of anti-loitering fines. We went to great lengths to discourage the wrong people from hanging around, but this of course discouraged everyone else as well.

“It’s almost like we created a word that celebrates the fact that we’ve forgotten how to design cities,” says Dan Burden, the executive director of the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute. “When we can create a place that’s so void of human life because people don’t want to go there, then this natural surveillance that occurs when people feel comfortable going there and watching over it themselves disappears.”

The problem is inherent in the word itself: loitering. The exact same activity – casual strolling, sitting, gathering in public – should be an active goal of cities known by another name: lingering.

Burden travels around North America preaching the distinction between these two terms (and Canadian communities get it much more than American ones do, he says). We should be celebrating street life, not discouraging it. And this shift in mindset requires a fundamental shift in vocabulary, too.

“We’ve gotten so bad,” Burden says, “there are towns I go to that I can’t find a single place that I feel comfortable lingering in because it just feels like I’m doing something where everybody will say ‘why is that guy sitting there?’”

And Burden looks suspiciously like he might be an aging hippie.

Anti-loitering ordinances (designed with aging hippies, gang members and bums in mind) have been created by communities over the years with varying degrees of dubious legality. They often appear to provide cover to police for not-so-subtle racial profiling. And they’ve been written with vague prohibitions against such shady activity as “remaining in any one place with no apparent purpose.” Ordinances, though, are just one tactic. Removing street furniture – or putting in only awful examples of it – can work just as well.

Lingering, on the other hand, is both a means to an end and a desirable end in itself. People who linger create vibrant public places and welcoming streetscapes. They also increase the safety of an area, with more eyes on the street. And leisurely foot traffic can lead to more street commerce, more connected communities, and spontaneous exchanges.

“The great thoughts, the great ideas that sprout really come form the street, where people are seeing things, where they bump into other people,” Burden says. “Einstein used to say that his best ideas came on his walk home from the university every day.”

Look at the most famous scenes, Burden adds, in celebrated photos, paintings and books. They often involve people in public places… lingering.

When Burden talks about this idea, he likes to show groups this older photo he took in Pioneer Square in Portland, Oregon. He likes to point to the guy on the bench at the left:

Just look at him. He’s got a tattoo. His shirt is nowhere to be seen. He looks like he might not have a job to attend to at this particular moment. And yet he’s surrounded by all these classy ladies in skirts.

“He’s totally outnumbered,” Burden says. “I think that’s the point.”

Maybe the guy is an outlier, and if the square were full of partially clothed characters like him, some of the other people in this image might not be comfortable sitting here. As a society, though, it’s possible we have a greater capacity to accommodate social outliers in our midst than we think. It’s OK if benches draw bums. Because if they also draw enough workers at lunchtime and moms with strollers, there's room for everyone.

A lot of West Coast cities, Burden says, are grasping this. And rejuvenated public places like the High Line and Bryant Park in New York are great examples, as well. But in other communities, like Detroit, he says we’ll need to start by creating “oases” for lingering, and build out from there.

“Until we change the vocabulary,” Burden says, “then we’ll know we haven’t gotten there yet. The last loitering sign I see in America, I want to photograph it and say ‘this is it.’ Maybe the new signs will say ‘please linger.’”

Photo courtesy of Flickr user BFelice.

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.