On coffee shops closing, the shortage of park benches, and the right to stay still
Americans have a funny relationship with motion. A person walking down the street is perfectly ordinary and attracts no attention. But if that same person stands in the same place on the sidewalk for ten minutes, they're sure to attract attention.
■ A car moving down the road? As normal as can be. But park that same car in the wrong place for too long (a parking lot, or in front of a prominent building), and a tow truck is probably soon to be on the way.
■ It's not a bad thing that we see fit to leave people alone when they're in motion. A bustling nation is usually a prosperous one. But we do need to consider whether we have enough spaces (in the right locations) for people to stay still.
■ Public spaces for people to remain still can be hard to maintain. Unlike a rotisserie oven, you cannot just "set it and forget it". Keeping spaces clean, sheltered, and heated costs money. Staffs must be hired and trained, and conscientious upkeep is a necessity.
■ There's a reason coffee shops are reconsidering their tolerance for "campers" and shifting to drive-through configurations. And it's much the same reason parks and libraries have trouble maintaining clean and orderly conditions when their budgets get clipped. Likewise for the widespread demise of the indoor shopping mall.
■ We just don't do well with people staying in place unless they're actively paying some kind of rent (either explicitly or implicitly). It's a cultural feature of American life that deserves closer attention.
■ Yet for all our reluctance to make provisions for people to sit still, we spend extraordinary amounts on the right to keep moving: Road and highway spending dwarfs spending on public spaces. We'll spend millions of public dollars to build airports where people will mostly just sit and wait, but we're not all that interested in providing the same accommodations for people who aren't going anywhere.
■ Protected freedom of motion is a mostly unalloyed good, and we should keep it as unfettered as possible. But the need to protect the freedom to remain still (without bothering others) deserves a second look.