If you’ve ever watched a baby sleep you might agree that there’s something magical about it. The calm purity of closed eye lids and the gentle heaving of breath make sensible all those angel comments grandparents like to throw around. Baby sleep after all is a perfect state of serene peacefulness. It’s the kind of sleep that people relish and that often attracts smiles from passersby on the street or in shopping malls. “Aw, so peaceful”, you might hear someone say, “What an angel”.
But where there are angels there must be demons and increasingly it seems that one such demon is the adult version of that sleeping baby. Somewhere along the line, who can really say when, the public snoozer became an enemy of the peace. You can see it in any number of parks or other public spaces where an unfortunate individual has dozed off on a bench or is perhaps chasing dreams propped up against a tree – people avert their eyes, whisper to each other and steer clear. You might assume from watching such scenes that sleepers are unpredictable creatures in perhaps the same way that zombies are – slow but potentially deadly.
I can’t say that I’ve had that experience personally. Rarely have I observed nappers reaching out to claw at nearby ankles or dog tails. Most sleepers are a peaceful lot no matter their location, their only concern, it would seem, is being left alone and who among us can’t relate to that? Evidently many – as efforts to crack-down on sleeping in public seem to be steadily on the rise.
Earlier this month San Francisco passed an ordinance, the so-called sit/lie law, banning sitting and lying on all public sidewalks. In a similar move, Roselle Park, New Jersey recently enacted a law forbidding sleeping in parks. These cities join Seattle, Dallas, Miami, Calgary, and over a hundred other municipalities in North America that now have statutes prohibiting sleeping in public places. The targets of these laws, are plainly the homeless men and woman who frequent parks, sidewalks and other common areas. Whether panhandling or simply lying down, the homeless often elicit antipathy and so are deemed bad for business and the image of civic order. In the absence of affective social remedies, laws are increasingly being employed to deal with the homeless and so we get the prohibition of things like sleeping in public – a round about way to keep “vagrants” out of view.
The ethics of targeting people for their appearance or (lack of) occupation is highly questionable, and so too is the arbitrary sacrifice of something as natural as sleeping in the midst of others. If the sight of someone sleeping is really a surrogate for identifying a homeless person, then what does that say about our public spaces?
Over three decades ago, architectural writer Christopher Alexander pointed out in plain terms, that the reason sleeping in public appears unnatural to us, is because it is rare. And it is rare, because there are so few comfortable places to lie down. He proposed a design challenge – the introduction to our public spaces of generous seating, comfortable corners and sheltered areas fit for naps. The larger point of this simple idea being that if and when we are rendered comfortable to lie and sleep in public, we would all do it, and then we’d have no fear of those sleeping on the street or in the park.
The image of public spaces filled with prone dozers, is an unusual visual to conjure up, but it’s one that might soften our view of streets and open spaces as areas only conducive to movement or interaction. It’s a happening that public artists have seen fit to explore through different mediums, such as a public napping project called Z’s by the C, carried out over the past couple of years in New York, Zurich, Toronto and other cities. The project involves gathering 150 people, adorned with special decorated eye masks, in a public space for a massive group nap. By playfully engaging people in an activity that seems more akin to private environments, they succeeded in generating a vital discussion about what constitutes public misbehaviour. A similar power-nap version was carried out by Improv Everywhere as part of their Mp3 Experiment.
These projects, and even the simple act of taking your own nap in the park, contribute to an important drive to reclaim public space as a milieu of comfort and trust. While seeing a grown-up sleeping in public might not qualify as particularly adorable or angelic anytime soon, perhaps the act of the public nap can at least again graduate to something less than deviant. Babies need not be the only ones to sleep in peace in the wider world.