Space Invaders, episode one

As a child in the American south in the 1980’s, secondhand smoke was part of growing up. It was in the house, the car, on school playgrounds, at every restaurant and shopping mall. On trips, my brothers and I observed miles of tobacco fields from the car windows.

I’ve never smoked a day in my life, but my nose can still tell the difference between a Virginia Slim, a Marlboro Red, a Black and Mild, and a cheap carton cigarette. But I am less accustomed to their presence than ever before.

Over the past two decades, corporations, cities, towns, and venues have limited cigarette smoking in specified areas for a variety of health, safety, and user-experience reasons. The Greenville (SC) ordinance cites some of these:

The presence of secondhand smoke in enclosed spaces or in outside areas where there is a public gathering with people being in close proximity in places open to the public inevitably results in persons who do not smoke being forced to bear unwarranted health risks and sustaining inappropriate deprivation of peaceful enjoyment of the premises to which they have been invited or permitted to enter, even when steps have been taken to separate “smoking” and “nonsmoking” areas within the confined space.

The [Greenville City] council recognizes that smoke creates a danger to the health and safety of the public at large and that, in order to protect the health and welfare of the public, it is necessary to restrict smoking in the manner provided for in this article [the full ordinance found here].

falls-park-signage (700x465)This is fundamentally an issue of the negotiation of space (proxemics) and the spatial relationships between people. We exist in space and we negotiate that space with the others around us. This can become tricky, especially when we are in a publicly shared space (like on a city sidewalk or in a city park).

The ordinances stipulate this exact issue, defining the open air spaces that are regulated under the city ordinance:

Smoking shall also be prohibited in certain outdoor areas when the use involves a gathering of the public, regardless of the number actually assembled for the event, performance, or competition. This prohibition shall apply to:

(a) Amphitheaters.
(b) Ball parks and stadiums when in use for athletic competitions or public performances.
(c) Parades and special events on public streets and city property.
(d) Dining areas in encroachment areas on public sidewalks, plazas, and parks.
(e) Decks, balconies, and patios of restaurants and bars when in use for entertainment or when in use for the consumption of food or beverages, or both.
(f) Zoos.

The penalties are not severe, but they are an attempt to enforce the ban:

A person who smokes in an area where smoking is prohibited by the provisions of this article shall be guilty of an infraction, punishable by a fine of not less than $10.00 nor more than $25.00.

A person who owns, manages, operates, or otherwise controls a public place or place of employment and who fails to comply with the provisions of this article shall be guilty of an infraction, punishable by a fine of not less than $10.00 nor more than $25.00.

But whose job is it to enforce a ban like this one? The ordinance gives power and authority to its city officers, business managers,owners, and employees, and regular citizens to file grievances.

Given all of this, when I walk around downtown Greenville, I don’t expect smoke to be present, and especially not at a table outside a restaurant where people are dining. So, while enjoying an outdoor table at a restaurant in the city with my family this week, I was surprised to be sitting next to a couple who were both smoking.

After we kindly asked them to comply with the ordinance to no avail, we enlisted the help of one of the restaurant’s employee. The conversation went something like this:

Restaurant employee: “Perhaps you were not aware, but there is a city ordinance banning smoking at restaurants. I’d appreciate it if you’d put out your cigarettes.”

Smoker 1: “We are outside and we’ll be finished soon.”

Employee: “And yet, we do not allow smoking. You can move away from the restaurant if you’d like to continue smoking (points to a smoking area).”

Smoker 1: “Well, we won’t come back downtown. It’s gotten too yuppie.” 

Smoker 2: “Yeah, we liked it much better when it was skid row out here.

Employee: “You’re the only ones.”

In this conversation, I was struck by the fact that even public space becomes personal. This public city street became personal to my family and those seated at tables around us who were recipients of secondhand smoke. It was personal to the smokers who were also enjoying their table. And, it was personal to the restaurant’s employees who are trying to create a particular atmosphere for their patrons.

And yet, it was a public space.

Bolstered by the city ordinance, the non-smokers in this public space won the debate. And it leaves me wondering about how we each negotiate proxemics in public places. How are those places governed? What happens when they are not governed? How do we operate in public spaces as good neighbors, and to what end?

What are your thoughts?

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