Saturday, March 31, 2012


What do Mayors of Pacific Northwest cities have against sitting? Seattle, Portland, Olympia, Anchorage, Berkeley, and San Francisco all have ordinances that restrict sitting on sidewalks. The ordinances have different names, from “Sidewalk Management Plan” (Portland), to “Pedestrian Interference Ordinance” (Olympia), to the slightly less Orwellian “sit / lie ban” (Seattle), but all are weapons against that scourge of downtowns everywhere: sitting on the sidewalk.

It all started in Seattle, where, in 1993, then-City Attorney Mark Sidran introduced a “sit / lie ban” as part of a package of “civility laws” created to entice businesses to lease downtown offices and storefronts. Gradually, other cities in the Northwest cities followed suit, with Portland’s, Anchorage’s, and San Francisco’s bans all taking effect between 2009 and 2011.

Why ban sidewalk sitting? To “clean up” downtown streets of the homeless, of course. Some of the ordinances are quite explicit about this, while others are not. In an official video explaining Portland’s Sidewalk Management Plan, for example, the Mayor’s Deputy Chief of Staff explains: “As you see we have multiple users on our sidewalks, going from one of our transit stops, visiting one of our mini-retailers in downtown Portland, or just travelling from Point A to Point B. So you can see as a city we have to be able to manage usage of the sidewalks.” (The evidence doesn’t bode well for those who deny that the homeless are the intended targets: between August 2007 and June 2008, 72.3 percent of the 159 people receiving warnings or citations for violating the Sit-Lie law were homeless.)

All of the ordinances work in more less the same way, by criminalizing sitting or reclining on downtown sidewalks for a period of time, usually 6AM until 12AM or so. However Portland’s Sidewalk Management Plan is interesting in that it proposes a 6' - 8' "pedestrian use zone" in which pedestrians "must move immediately to accommodate the multiple users of the sidewalk." Importantly, the zone measures out from the property line, ruling out leaning on (or sleeping on) buildings.

Quite honestly as New Yorkers, it’s hard for us not to scoff at this nonsense. If such ordinances aren’t needed in midtown Manhattan—which hosts some of the busiest, most diverse sidewalks in the world—are they really needed in the relatively serene downtowns of the Pacific Northwest?


  1. I agree, if not in NYC, why anywhere else?

  2. Although I do disagree with the sit/lie ban, you cannot site NYC as a model for the PNW. Comparing the bustling sidewalks of Manhattan to those of downtown Seattle is futile - the two are completely different in terms of scale, density, and overall patterns of usage. I think alot of that Manhattan density keeps the squatters at bay. Contrast that to downtown Seattle's sidewalks which are often deserted. Encounters with sidewalk squatters can be rather unsavory when you're the only person walking on the sidewalk.

  3. Stumbling across this article I am reminded of a trip to London around 1975 or so. I used to walk everywhere and loved it. Unfortunately shoes back then were not generally so comfortable for women, and my feet would ache something awful as a result of mid-height heels and absolutely no padding. I remember planning to sit on some steps for a few minutes to catch my breath and relax my feet when a London policeman told me to "move along." I suppose he made an unfortunate assumption about why a woman might be there, but he didn't even speak to me to learn that I was an American tourist with money to spend and exhausted from doing just that. It didn't make a good impression. I didn't feel welcome, that's for sure. That I understood what he might be thinking did not make me feel any better. Sometimes a thing like police presence can cut both ways on the exclusion and inclusion scale. Better police training would have helped.