John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Do any of these annoying strategies actually work?
A city in the U.K. is considering whether to bathe teenage troublemakers in pools of harsh, pink light.
Officials in Cardiff, the capital of Wales, want to outfit their downtown commercial area with the special lights, typically used by beauticians to check out a person's skin quality. The idea is that these devices will reveal all the pimples and blemishes of teenage loiterers, who will then freak out under the communal judgment of their peers and scatter like cockroaches back to their homes.
Sound dumb? Sure, but it's no dumber than all the other questionable doodads that cities have adopted in the past decade to combat loiterers. Let's check a few of them out, and see how annoying they are vis-à-vis their effectiveness:
Effectiveness: Are teenagers really that vain that a moment in the spotlight will crush their egos? Apparently, yes, based on the thinking that something must be working with this odd strategy because it's been floating around Britain for at least half a decade. Lancashire put up the lights in 2006 to drive out acne-ridden yobs as well as to create a "calming atmosphere." Then a housing project in Nottinghamshire gave them a spin in an attempt to quash a rash of drug dealing, underage drinking and intimidation; a resident who was at first "dubious" of the concept later professed that "it's done the trick."
How annoying? Not so bad if you're not a teen with bad skin, and almost pleasant if you like imagining living on Mars.
Collateral damage: Medium. As Peta Halls of the National Youth Agency pointed out to the BBC, "The pink lights are indiscriminate in that they will impact on all young people and older people who do not, perhaps, have perfect skin."
Effectiveness: Cities across the globe have embraced the Mosquito, an anti-loitering device provided by the U.K. company Compound Security. The tweeter emits a high-frequency sound that is supposedly unbearable to anybody under 25. But aside from two "case studies" on Compound's website, I can't find much evidence that the things do what they say they do. Even the Mosquito's inventor notes that it could take 10 to 15 minutes to have an effect on troublesome teens, if it works at all.
How annoying? Very, especially when you realize they're polluting everything within range with irritating noise, with no "off" switch available to regular shoppers/non-loiterers. Try it out: You can hear this, right?
Collateral damage: High. Everybody seems to hear the screeching. Property managers in Washington, D.C., put up a Mosquito at the Gallery Place Metro Station after a giant fight erupted there in 2010. The result, reported TBD's Dave Jamieson:
Three teenagers sitting near the escalators around noon today said they were unfazed by the new beeping sound. "I kind of like it," one said. A group of a half-dozen men idling nearby continued to ogle women coming off the Metro, apparently not bothered in the least by the device.
Tony Washington, who was nursing a chocolate milkshake and a cigarette as he leaned on some spare escalator parts, said that for several minutes he thought the sound was coming from his watch. He kept putting his wrist to his ear. Once he became convinced the watch was fine, "I didn't pay it no mind," he said.
THE MUSIC OF OLD PEOPLE
Effectiveness: Another widely accepted anti-loitering strategy, used by urban problem solvers in Portland, Minneapolis, D.C., and Australia, is to play music perceived to be painfully unhip in areas where teens congregate. Businesses have fallen back on the not-cool aural assault since 2005, making it as least as old as the pink lights and suggesting that it works, somehow. The Music Mosquito, a melodic version of the regular HF emitter, reportedly only carries a "moderate effect." But a transit center in Tacoma, Washington, had incidents of vandalism drop after putting classical music on the rotation, perhaps due to suppressed dopamine production. Be warned: Entities that employ this technology are at risk of having it hacked and played like a regular DJ set.
How annoying? Aside from some campaigns that border on the racist – using country tunes as a black youth repellent in Seattle, for instance – this tactic isn't so annoying. The urban soundscape is so cluttered with honking horns, whacking jackhammers and the yells and mutterings of the crowded masses that injecting some inoffensive music into the mix is almost a courtesy. Granted, I'm hoping it's Willie Nelson and not "Achy Breaky Heart," as blasting the latter would qualify as psychological warfare. (And has in the past.)
Collateral damage: Low. If you can't put up with a little Bach or Beethoven during your afternoon loiterer session, then you are not worthy of that title.
Effectiveness: Unknown, as this technology seems to be newish and not much in use. The idea is that people based in a HQ far off-site monitor the cameras for troublemakers, then yell at them through speakers to vacate the premises.
How annoying? Extremely. Being told by a security guard to get off the property is annoying enough, but hearing it from an inanimate hunk of metal whose operator is safely ensconced miles away, and probably smirking at that very moment, is enough to snap an incisor with tooth-grating irritation.
Collateral damage: Seeing as this is a highly selective form of anti-loitering ordnance, there's not much radial damage.
'NO LOITERING' SIGNS
Effectiveness: Not great, but much cheaper than other options.
How annoying? Only slightly.
Collateral damage: Nobody really obeys to them, just like all the other devices mentioned above, so not that much.
Photo of a Banksy mural in New Orleans' Ninth Ward by Infrogmation.