Public space in the aftermath of the smoking ban

By Beth Fell
Urban Archives, Winter 2006

When I started working on this project, I thought my main focus would be on smokers. My plan was to document the smoking ban by taking photos of people smoking, huddled outside of bars and restaurants. I quickly realized that this was going to pose a problem for several reasons. First, people don't like having their picture taken, especially while smoking. Second, without context, pictures of people smoking can't adequately tell the story of the smoking ban and what it really means in terms of public space.

I turned my attention towards the concept of place. Where do smokers go to smoke now that they have been ousted from indoor public meeting places? How are businesses handling the issue and what are they doing to accommodate their smoking customers? This question turned out to offer a bit more promise. I had heard about a bar in the SODO district called The Siren that had built a special structure behind their building for smokers.

I showed up on a rainy Saturday afternoon to check it out. The bar was almost empty, mostly due to the fact that The Siren is a working class bar that caters to weekday port workers. I made my way to the bar, where I was immediately taken with a sign directing smokers to the “Smoke Shack” out back.  The structure itself was merely a flimsy metal carport type of thing from Home Depot. But the bar owner had added a couple of heaters, ashtrays, and a narrow counter along one side for people to set their drinks. It isn't pretty, but it is an intentional space for smokers, an attempt to accommodate important bar patrons. Of course The Siren has an advantage over denser neighborhoods like Capitol Hill and Pioneer Square because it has the space to provide a place for smokers.

Though I was excited by the prospect of documenting intentional smokers' spaces, The Smoke Shack turned out to be an anomaly here in Seattle. Once again I was faced with the task of finding the story. With my camera in hand, I set out to explore my own neighborhood first. I wandered around Capitol Hill, not sure of what I was looking for. I took some pictures of the Canterbury, a notorious smoker's haven. They had posted numerous signs and had installed a special “Smoker's Station” about 25 feet from their main entrance.

I stopped at Seattle Central Community College and took some pictures of cigarette butts on the ground in places where smokers are known to hang out. I headed over to Pike Street, finding piles of butts along the way, and snapped a picture of the Comet. That's when I first noticed the green sign. At that point I was trying to show how absurd the 25-foot rule is, especially given the density of some business districts. I was taking long shots to show how close together the buildings are, but as I moved in for closer shots, I noticed the green signs were posted on almost every storefront.

I began to think about how signage, as a form of visual communication, could be a unifying factor, a way to create commonality around the issue of the smoking ban. As I snapped photos of these diverse businesses-a Mexican restaurant, a lesbian bar, a coffee house, etc. -- the green signs took on a whole new meaning for me. I started to take note of where each business placed the green sign. Sometimes it was the only form of signage on the storefront. Other times it was one of many signs, creating a cluttered mess of visual over-stimulation. I wondered, “Is it even worth posting a sign if it can't even be distinguished from its surroundings?” I also noticed how the sign could completely alter a storefront, as is the case with Galerias on Broadway. This business placed the sign on the front window, completely disturbing the intended design element.

Aside from the green signs, the smoking ban has altered the landscape in more concrete ways. The most obvious (and perhaps disturbing) example is the accumulation of cigarette butts that can now be found on city sidewalks. I normally took my photos early on Sunday mornings, which allowed me the opportunity to see the aftermath of Saturday night revelry. On several occasions I found an astonishing display of butts scattered in front of bars, or a concentration of butts in one area. This got me thinking about the smoking ban in an entirely different way. I began to wonder if the writers of the smoking ban initiative or Seattle/King County Public Health gave any thought at all to how the ban would impact public space. Surely they must have at least considered how sending people outside to smoke would create more garbage and noise, not to mention the fact that nonsmokers would have to deal with many more smokers as they walk down public sidewalks.

I emailed Roger Valdez, the head of Tobacco Prevention for Seattle/King County Public Health and the go-to person for dealing with issues around the smoking ban. I sent him several pictures of cigarette butt-laden sidewalks and asked him what planning had gone into dealing with the issue. I also wanted to know what was being done presently. He told me that most of the planning had been around how to deal with the expected onslaught of complaints about violations concerning the 25-foot rule. The number of complaints, however, turned out to be far fewer than expected. Valdez admitted that an increase in cigarette butts on city streets was never a consideration but acknowledged that it (as well as increased noise issues) is, indeed, a problem. Interestingly enough, Valdez noted that an increase in cigarette butts could be a positive thing because it shows that people are following the law. From his perspective, no one should smoke, so he views the law only in positive terms.

Curious about the green signs, I inquired about their origin. He told me that the signage was mandated by the law. They were created by the State and sent to every business in Washington. The only stipulation was that the sign be posted in plain sight, not necessarily in the front window of a business. This brings up an interesting question as to why some businesses chose to post them so prominently and others did not.

While I was not entirely sure what I would find working on this project, I must say that the experience was amazing. I often wondered why I was taking photos of green signs and whether or not it was an appropriate way to investigate the impact of the smoking ban on public space. Documenting cigarette butt accumulation made me question the lack of foresight by the writers of the ban and made me angry enough about it to actually confront the agency responsible for it.

Towards the end of our conversation, I pressed Valdez further to find out what Seattle/King County Public Health planned to do about the cigarette butts. He said working with neighborhood business groups was a possibility.

In conclusion, it's also important to consider how smoking in general affects public space. During my investigations of various neighborhoods, I began to take note of smoke shops and how the commercial aspect of smoking contributes to visual clutter. And I enjoyed seeing various outdoor ashtrays -- both commercially made and individually made. These seemingly innocuous receptacles alter public space, albeit in subtle ways. I saw everything from the Safe Smoker, a black plastic thing that sort of resembles a whiffle ball tee, to a Hershey's Syrup canister, to a large paint bucket with a toilet seat over it and the words “For Butts Only,” scrawled on the lid in black marker.

Methodology Notes

I learned that it's okay not to know exactly what I am looking for when I set out to investigate something. In fact, it might be best not to have too many expectations so that I can allow myself the freedom to explore. Even in the middle of the quarter, when I wasn't entirely sure where my research would take me, I had an inkling that if I just let things happen naturally, the story would reveal itself.

In terms of data collection, I think my process worked well for me. I chose one neighborhood each week to explore. Because I get around by foot and public transportation, I intentionally chose areas where there is a healthy concentration of businesses and nightlife. Had I been driving, I may have had an opportunity to discover a lot more places and add diversity to my project. My only advice to others that work on this project is to set a weekly schedule and stick to it and keep up with photo formatting and data entry.

Selected photographs

Photographs are arranged by general theme. Please refer to the essay (left).

Smoke Shack

Photos of the "Smoke Shack" at The Siren.

Signs and Storefronts

Litter of the Law

Whether as a sign of protest against the new law or just a result of the lack of proper receptacles to handle the influx of outdoor smoking, cigarette butt litter seems to have increased in places.

Smoke shops

The colorful visual landscape and clutter of smoke shop storefronts

Makeshift Public Ashtrays

With the ban in effect but with King County lacking a clear strategy for handling the smoking that has been pushed outside, people make do, or choose not to, with makeshift ashtrays.