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Claims of "hostile architecture" over new Iowa City benches

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New benches now up at the pedestrian mall in Iowa City are a source of controversy, with some saying the bench design is hurting the homeless.

It all has to do with the armrests in the middle, causing people to take a stand.

On Facebook, one person calls it “hostile architecture” that prevents people from lying down.

Officials with Iowa City's engineering department are responding, saying the armrests aren't there to deter the homeless.

“The intent of the center armrests is to allow for additional people to sit on the bench. People tend to sit in the middle of a bench if there’s not that center armrest, so this provides more seating,” senior civil engineer Scott Sovers says.

Sovers says any concerns about the benches weren’t brought to the city’s attention during public meetings before they were installed.

They held three public meetings to go over the plans; those meetings were all well-attended, Sovers says.

“As a part of that, we specifically had the benches on all of our displays so people could look at them and everybody that attended the meetings were very excited about the benches we had chosen,” he adds.

The benches were installed a couple months ago, but in late November, Iowa City Catholic Worker posted on Facebook, asking if people thought they were discriminatory against the homeless population. The response was largely: yes.

“Considering that homeless people are so vulnerable...I mean would you rather sleep lying in the alley or lie on a bench?” Johnathan Kimber asks, glancing over as more benches were installed at the ped mall Tuesday afternoon.

“The benches would be discriminatory against homeless people,” Iowa City resident Jason Blaha says. “A homeless person needs someplace to sleep.”

Blaha knows all too well what that’s like. He’s been homeless before, trying to find a warm place to sleep. He points out an alternative to sleeping on a bench off the ground – down any alley.

“Maybe down there behind that trash can like some of them have to do. What’s wrong with that bench?” he says.

Blaha says some homeless people may still lie here and use the armrest as a pillow.

Iowa City officials say preventing the homeless from using the benches in any capacity was never the intention.

“That wasn’t a factor in the decision-making process in selecting the benches we did,” Scott Sovers says.

More benches are being installed, including some of the hand-painted ones like those currently at the ped mall. However, Sovers says they all have the middle armrests.

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Aside from the original Facebook post, Sovers says they haven’t received any complaints.

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