Don't feed the birds

A wave of regulations is hitting Spain, with fines for feeding the pigeons in Madrid and penalties for gambling on the streets of Guadalix de la Sierra. Is it all a step too far?

O ne of the bestselling souvenirs from Singapore is a t-shirt that lists all the things prohibited in the city-state: "No smoking, no chewing gum, no feeding the birds, no littering, no spitting, no urinating, no picking flowers," it reads. Doing any of these things can land you a fine of $1,000 (around730 euros).

But what used to be a peculiarity to this Asian nation is no longer so peculiar. Similar t-shirts can now be purchased in many Spanish towns and cities, which in recent years have started regulating and penalizing all kinds of conduct on the street, from playing cards for money and shaking out carpets on one's balcony, to making too much noise during siesta time. But are so many coercive laws really necessary?

What was once regulated by traditions and customs, by tacit agreements between neighbors, is now controlled by explicit municipal edicts. This wave of regulations, which seems to have begun with Barcelona's civic ordinance (a 60-page document passed in 2005), has several causes, according to a number of anthropologists and sociologists: greater anonymity in big cities; a lack of involvement with public life; and immigration, which brings an influx of people with very different habits from the locals.

But sometimes these prohibitions go beyond consensus regarding the kind of conduct that is socially reproachable. The latest prohibition was announced last week by the region of Madrid, which will impose fines of between 300 euros and 1,500 euros on people who feed wild animals such as pigeons. But the bylaw joins a long list of civic regulations that have been passed in many cities over recent years.

According to the anthropologist Manuel Delgado, this overregulation is counterproductive. He has written several articles in this newspaper about the uselessness of passing such detailed civic laws: "It can be assumed that the so-called rise in uncivil conduct is not the result of an excessive amount of freedom, but just the opposite: of an increase in constraints, of a total distrust regarding any uncontrollable or unprofitable appropriation of public space, and of hostility against displays of discontent, something that no society can cease to have."

Even if we accept the regulation and a certain control of public conduct as necessary, the ideal thing, in the opinion of the sociologist Jorge López, is for this regulation to occur based on "the citizens themselves taking responsibility, without the need to impose laws or fines." He continues: "On the other hand, it's absurd to try to regulate by law conduct that people should accept automatically, since behavior that they don't perceive as their own generates a lot of negative effects. They're not observed if there is no external authority that sanctions them. Thus, if there is no parallel process to educate people to facilitate the acceptance of such laws, they are broken whenever the punishment mechanism isn't there," he says.

An increasingly complex society, however, makes it necessary to regulate interaction between citizens, thinks the sociology professor Marina Subirats. She served on Barcelona's city council when it was preparing its civic ordinance, although she left her post because she didn't agree with the final outcome. "There is more and more individual liberty. The immediate context controls less than it did in the past. In small towns, if you went out and did something different from everyone else, you would get criticized; there was this fear about what people would say. That was a very strong form of oppression; a neighbor watching you from her balcony was worse than any fine. Now we're in a much freer society that permits individual variations in conduct, with much less pressure from the people around us, because either you don't know your neighbors or you don't care what they say," says Subirats.

She thinks sanctions are necessary in many cases, but without minimizing the importance of information and education. "It's a double deal: you've got to explain why certain behavior is bad and fine people if they insist on doing it anyway." As an example, she cites national parks in the United States. "There you see a little plant and there's a sign that explains how hard it was for it to grow in the desert and how valuable it is biologically. Then it says that if you pick it, you'll have to pay so many dollars."

Around Spain, town halls have tried all kinds of ways to educate people. A few years back, the city of Segovia sent letters to the owners of all registered dogs, explaining the importance of keeping them on a leash and of picking up their excrement. The city of Teruel distributed t-shirts with civic norms during the last town festival. The municipality of Cornellá sent 12 educators out on to the street to remind citizens about laws regarding the proper use of trash bins, containers and keeping parks clean. In Ibiza, they handed out 12,000 flyers this summer, reminding people that it is prohibited to soil, stain or break public property of any kind, to drink alcohol outside of permitted areas, to offer or solicit sexual services on the street, to sell food, beverages or other products in public places as well as anything else that keeps residents from getting their rest.

The problem is that this attempt to educate adults may be too late. According to Victoria Cardona, an expert in family education who recently published a book on the subject (Un extraño en casa), the basis is what future citizens internalize when they are children. "Kids learn from what they see. They will keep their neighborhood, their city, and their surroundings clean if they see that their parents do it, and they will do it freely, without anyone having to force them," she says.

When it's already too late, town halls try to solve the problem through fines. Another problem is that in recent years Spain has also received many immigrants who don't necessarily have the same rules of behavior as their neighbors. Mikel Aranburu, an anthropologist at the University of Barcelona, says this cannot be generalized, since while many groups are very visible, others go totally unnoticed. Most of them, however, come from countries where public space is politically restricted, but socially much more open. "In many of them, you can have a family celebration in the street (a wedding or a funeral, for instance) without a permit. In general, there is a social self-regulation of participation in public space, which is based on the principle of greater tolerance of appropriations of this space. In European countries, on the other hand, there is a greater intolerance of these private - and we might even say invasive - uses of public space, even if they are temporary," he wrote in an article about civic-mindedness. In his opinion, a community without conflict is idealistic and even negative. "It is through dealing with conflict that the rules of behavior are learned. This overregulation robs citizens of the chance to settle such matters on their own, which sometimes even includes conflicts between different groups or individuals. People want to live in a totally safe environment, with zero risk. That affects banal aspects of living together in public space," he says.

To what extent should municipalities regulate what citizens can or cannot do? Antonio Embid, a specialist in local law, says that cities have the authority to regulate civic norms. But both he and Javier García Roca, a professor of Constitutional law at Madrid's Complutense University, agree that sometimes, town halls may go too far. As they see it, laws regulating whether or not women can wear a headscarf or a burka on the street should be up to the national government, to ensure consistency throughout the country. "An ordinance is sufficient for more day to day matters, but I think that a law should regulate many issues that have been addressed on the municipal level, such as prohibiting homeless people from occupying the street, the burka or even prostitution," says García Roca.

Closer than Singapore, a good model regarding laws and conduct can be found in Switzerland, a paradigm of civic-mindedness. In that country, there is a great deal of awareness regarding certain public-minded conduct, but there is also a long list of regulatory laws. They are especially strict, for instance, when it comes to traffic cameras. But the double play that Marina Subirats mentioned also works. In Bern, for example, if a police officer sees someone littering or leaving their dog's excrement on the street, they are first asked to pick it up and only fined if they don't.

In Spain, matters regarding animals are increasingly restricted and regulated. The opposite is true in Switzerland. In that country, it is more common to find animals in restaurants, shopping centers or even on public transportation, where there is a special ticket for pets.

Yet poorly trained dogs that disturb people are frowned upon. Most Swiss people take for granted that those who have a pet have trained them to live in society. That's why they don't need any laws prohibiting dogs from running around without a leash or from entering public spaces.

Rules for some...

- Madrid. Earlier this month the regional government passed a bill covering animal protection. It makes feeding wild or stray animals - such as pigeons - a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of between 300 and 1,200 euros. Also covered by the legislation is using animals to beg or failing to notify of their loss or death.

- Barcelona. In 2005 the city passed an exhaustive code that established fines for everything from practicing prostitution, to begging and gambling in the street. But it did not say anything about clothing, which has been regulated this year. The civic ordinance now includes sanctions for nudity on the street, as well as for people wearing nothing but bathing trunks or a bikini outside the seafront area. Such fines will only be imposed if the individual, after being warned by the police, fails to correct his or her behavior.

- Guadalix de la Sierra. This summer, the municipality of 2,500 residents passed an ordinance to keep people from occupying the streets, with fines of between 750 and 3,000 euros. Disturbing the peace is also prohibited. "Unless the city has authorized it, it is prohibited to disturb the rest and peace of residents and pedestrians with TVs, radios, music equipment or similar devices, as well as singing, shouting, fighting or any other bothersome act," runs the rule. Also forbidden are games that, due to their nature, might "bother" residents, as well as those that include betting.

- Valle Gran Rey. In 2009 this town in Tenerife passed an ordinance to regulate conduct such as the time of day to take out the trash and the proper way to get rid of electrical appliances. It includes fines for hanging clothing out to dry on balconies and for shaking out doormats from your window.

- Marbella. In 2008, this city in Málaga passed a regulation forcing all those who break street furniture and fixtures or who do not pick up their animal's excrement, among other things, to choose voluntarily between paying a fine or doing community service.

- Granada. Two years ago, the city passed an ordinance that restricts conduct such as "sexual practices on the street." One of the goals was to eradicate prostitution; clients as well as sex workers can be fined up to 3,000 euros.

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