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.

 
 
 
 

Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.


So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.