The city that never sleeps

“It is the mark of success in a park, public lobby or a porch, when people come there and fall asleep,” theorized architect Christopher Alexander.

By this definition, Vancouver is tremendously unsuccessful. While the sidewalks and alleyways of the Downtown Eastside are littered with people spending their nights, this is clearly recognized as the product of need, not of vibrant public spaces.

Sleep is one of the most basic of human survival rights. While every other fundamental necessity of life (food, water, air) is virtually completely unrestricted, sleep, easily the most intimate of all needs, is quite limited.

In fact, citizens are actively discouraged from sleeping in public. Benches increasingly come equipped with metal “sleep-guards” to ward off potential nappers. I suppose these are actually meant to obstruct the ability of homeless people to make benches into beds, though regardless of whom they are intended for, they still play into the politics of public space.

Vancouver’s public spaces are generally limited to the city’s parks. While on sunny days it is normal to find dressed couples asleep and suntanning on blankets, this is decidedly the exception. Napping transit riders are not a rarity, however, the inaccessibility of transit to citizens who are unable to pay excludes it from being a truly public space.

The consequences of not facilitating proper sleeping spaces can lead to fatal examples. In a rather shocking incident this October, a man sleeping on an outdoor couch in East Van was lit on fire. Though authorities never really determined whether the episode was gang-related or just a crappy prank, it certainly does not add to the appeal of sleeping in public in the city.

The solution is for Vancouver to look towards other countries which facilitate better resting habits. Take Japan, for example, where public sleeping is almost a national pastime. It is not uncommon to find well-dressed businessmen sleeping serenely on park benches, in train stations, and even in bushes.

So what makes a public space successful enough that citizens are willing to sleep there as they would in their bedrooms? The answer is partly acceptance. Vancouver’s concept of public space as a whole does not seem to involve sleeping. Our city’s high rate of homelessness might be related to this – the immediate assumption that anyone curled up on a park bench in the middle of the day is doing so because they are homeless is unfortunate. Certainly, anyone sleeping in the middle of a skytrain station, as is relatively common in Japan, is bound to be hassled by transit security.

The true notion of public space is one of unhindered access and use. Really, within the confines of legality, few things should be actively discouraged in public spaces. While exceptions include some things that may cause others harm or discomfort, the idea that public sleepers may make people uncomfortable is a social construct.

Unfortunately for Vancouverites, with the Olympics on the way, unbridled freedom in public spaces is likely about to be reigned in. The recent introduction of a clause which allows authorities to forcibly usher homeless people off the streets during “emergency weather alerts” is a suggestion that 2010 will make public sleeping even more unwelcome than it already is.

//Natalie Corbo


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