Park Life: The Zürich park which decriminalised heroin

Platzspitz, Zurich. Image: Ed Jefferson.

At the heart of Zürich, tucked out of the way on the peninsula where the river Limmat meets the river Sihl, sits the triangular Platzspitz. On a Friday afternoon in February there aren’t more than a couple of handfuls of visitors wandering through the park, and fewer still stopping to enjoy the somewhat brisk surroundings, but it’s not hard to imagine the rise in popularity in warmer months: Zürichers popping across the bridge to relax on their lunch breaks, or heading to an outdoor concert in the evening.

With the rivers forming natural barriers on two sides and the Swiss National Museum and its enormous brutalist extension, it’s remarkably easy to forget that you’re in the heart of a city. Accessible only through two small footbridges or through gates behind the museum, it’d be easy to miss its existence entirely.

On the map. Image: Open Street Map.

It wasn’t always so isolated. During the Renaissance, it was home to a shooting club; in the 1780s it was rebuilt as Platzpromenade, a baroque garden for the great and good to promenade along (a few features of that era survive).

And then it was remodeled again in the 1880s in time as feature of Swiss National Exhibition. James Joyce is reputed it to have considered it one of his favourite spots in the city during the years he lived there (Finnegan’s Wake apparently alludes to this, but then you could say that about more or less anything and have 99 per cent of people assume it was true). But the march of progress secluded it from the city as the more southerly parts of the park disappeared beneath roads, a major train station and the museum, and it disappeared into obscurity.


Not necessarily a bad thing depending on your point of view. In the 1970s the isolation made it an ideal cruising ground; in 1978 it hosted a memorial to the Stonewall riots. But by the following decade, it was known for something else: heroin.

In the 1980s Switzerland had a growing drug problem, and increasing numbers of heroin users began to congregate on Platzspitz, in the city centre but effectively out of the way. Having chased the problem through various sites around the city, police eventually decided on a new approach well, if they’re all hanging out in once place where they aren’t really bothering anyone else, why not let them get on with it?

By the early 1990s thousands of heroin users could be found in the park at any given time, many having headed to this decriminalised zone from across Europe. There were attempts to keep activity in the park safe – a government health centre distributed clean needle – but otherwise the approach in what became known as “Needle Park” was hands off. (And people said season 3 of The Wire was unrealistic!)

However appealing that idea might be to libertarians, the reality wasn’t great: the health service was dealing with up to 25 overdoses a day and there were increasing problems with drug-related violence and crime in the park and the surrounding area. By 1992 the situation was untenable and policing returned to the park in the shape of an enormous eviction operation: Needle Park was emptied and shut down.

See if you can spot the author. Image: Ed Jefferson.

This wasn’t a solution, as it turned out. With a then-limited support system available to address the underlying problem of vast numbers of people addicted to heroin, the drug scene just shifted to a nearby disused train station; and if anything got worse both for the people trapped in it with limited access to recovery options, and the city as a whole.

So Switzerland tried something else: treatment. Among other options on offer through a vastly expanded programme, it was one of the first countries to trial helping severely addicted people by prescribing them heroin, and it actually seems to have worked. No new Needle Parks have appeared and levels of drug-related crime in the country have plummeted.

Within a few years Platzspitz was cleaned up and re-opened as the charming riverside park that James Joyce may have written one of them mucky letters in. It’s now hard to imagine that 30 years ago this was the site of so much misery, albeit that in the end what happened here led to a massively positive change. The strongest visible substance abuse today: two blokes enjoying cans of lager near the 19th century gazebo. If it was warmer I’d be tempted to join them.

Ed Jefferson works for the internet and tweets as @edjeff.

 
 
 
 

The Fire Brigades Union’s statement on Theresa May’s resignation is completely damning

Grenfell Tower. Image: Getty.

Just after 10 this morning, Theresa May announced that she would resign as Britain’s prime minister on 7 June. A mere half an hour later, a statement from Royal Institute of British Architects president Ben Derbyshire arrived in my inbox with a ping:

“The news that Theresa May will step down as Prime Minister leaves the country in limbo while the clock ticks down to the latest deadline of 31 October. While much is uncertain, one thing remains clear – a no deal is no option for architecture or the wider construction sector. Whoever becomes the next Prime Minister must focus on taking the country forward with policies beyond Brexit that tackle the major challenges facing the country such as the housing crisis and climate change emergency.”

I was a bit baffled by this – why would the architecture profession try to get its thoughts into a political story? But then Merlin Fulcher of Architects Journal put me right:

Well you know construction is a larger contributor to GDP than financial services, and most of the work UK architects do is for export, and at least half of the largest practice (Foster + Partners) are EU, so there's a lot at stake

— Merlin Fulcher (@merlinfulcher) May 24, 2019

So, the thoughts of the RIBA president are an entirely legitimate thing to send to any construction sector-adjacent journalists who might be writing about today’s big news, and frankly I felt a little silly.

Someone else who should be feeling more than a little silly, though, is Theresa May herself. When listing her government’s achievements, such as they were, she included, setting up “the independent public inquiry into the tragedy at Grenfell Tower” – a fire in a West London public housing block in June 2017 – “to search for the truth, so nothing like it can ever happen again, and so the people who lost their lives that night are never forgotten”.

Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, is having precisely none of this. Here’s his statement:

“Many of the underlying issues at Grenfell were due to unsafe conditions that had been allowed to fester under Tory governments and a council for which Theresa May bears ultimate responsibility. The inquiry she launched has kicked scrutiny of corporate and government interests into the long-grass, denying families and survivors justice, while allowing business as usual to continue for the wealthy. For the outgoing Prime Minister to suggest that her awful response to Grenfell is a proud part of her legacy is, frankly, disgraceful.”

A total of 72 people died in the Grenfell fire. At time of writing, nobody has been prosecuted.

Jonn Elledge is editor of CityMetric and the assistant editor of the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.