Over on Post Globe, Philip Dawdy writes about Cal Anderson Park, “the park you can’t play in,” whose attractive water features, extensively used during the recent heat wave by overheated dogs and humans alike, are officially off-limits to bathers and waders.
“You’re not supposed to be in it at all anywhere,” said Joelle Ligon, a Parks spokeswoman. “It wasn’t designed as a water feature to play in. It was designed for visual enjoyment.”
Yes, the City of Seattle has literally created a park you can’t play in.
Yeah, kinda. But as Dawdy noted, the signs and occasional patrols haven’t stopped park goers from enjoying the cooling stream and pond, even during less severe weather. Nor should it. “Keep people and pets out of the water and don’t climb on the fountain. Thank you!” the tiny plaques say, and while this oh-so-politely phrased prohibition doesn’t include a parenthetical “wink-wink,” it’s pretty much understood.
These are the way things work in real cities, where we humans often find ourselves packed uncomfortably on top of each other, and rules are imperfectly created in an effort to strike the proper balance between private liberty and the public good. I suppose the police could ticket violators for wading in a public fountain on a 103 degree day, but really, unless there was some imminent threat to public safety or the public peace, why bother?
The rule is there in case it needs to be enforced (and I’m guessing, to protect the city from liability), but it doesn’t need to be enforced just because it can. And most grownups—including the police and park officials—understand that.
In fact, I’d argue that you can’t really avoid being a scofflaw from time to time in civilized society, and there’s nothing ethically questionable or social destructive about it. Almost all of us drive at least a few miles over the limit from time to time, and indeed, at times (such as passing a slower moving vehicle on a two-lane road), safety can demand it. Even in uptight Seattle, most of us have jaywalked (a way of life in other cities).
As for me, I routinely violate the city’s off-leash laws at a small park where dozens of local dog owners routinely take their four-legged companions for an illicit swim in the lake. We all know that we risk a hefty fine, and occasionally, Animal Control shows up to hand them out. But you know what? It’s worth the risk, with only one legal dog beach in the city, and that one being a half-hour drive away, and the park being virtually abandoned but for us for nine months of the year. As long as we do no harm (and in keeping the beaches clear of goose poop and the park clear of drug dealers, I’d argue we do some good), there is no public harm in tolerating us.
Yeah, I know, it sounds like I’m arguing for selective enforcement of the law, which is generally a bad thing in concept, but what I’m really talking about is context, which is the prism through which many rules and laws are viewed in places where folks tend to crowd together. The rule against swimming in the water feature at Cal Anderson Park is there to be enforced when and if it needs to be enforced, but if folks continue to violate it wisely and discretely and without conflict, well then… wink-wink.
And that’s just how big cities work.
Judging from some comments and email, perhaps I was being obtuse, so, shorter Goldy: people play in the park you can’t play in. So what’s the problem?