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.

 
 
 
 

Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.