PUBLIC PARKS serve many functions. They are gardens, rallying places, sports turf, hiking spots, dog-walking spaces, and more. To preserve all these functions, curators maintain a flexible set of rules — pets are allowed in some places, but not others; walking on the grass is okay in certain areas, but not everywhere. In at least some places, there are bans on certain types of food, attire, and noise. The goal is to ensure the maximum enjoyment for the maximum numbers of people.
A similarly flexible standard should be applied to smoking in parks and beaches — but not the outright ban of the type just enacted by New York and proposed for Boston this week by City Councilors Felix Arroyo and Salvatore LaMattina.
Arroyo and LaMattina, who are asthma sufferers, should not have to share a bench or space on the grass with smokers — there should be fully smoke-free areas in large parks and beaches. But smoking should be allowed in other areas. In those spots, people who are sensitive to smoke would have to be alert to avoid any irritating exposure. But their inconvenience would be similar to that of people who can’t stand noise — whether from a dog, a radio, or a screaming child — and would be a relatively small concession to the interests of those who choose to smoke.
The entire concept of public space suggests that concessions must made to accommodate different needs and behaviors; it ought to be within the capacity of park managers to draw sensible boundaries.
In a city where smoking is already banned in bars and restaurants, parks are one of the last remaining places where smokers can legally light up. And the arguments that led to smoking bans on planes, trains, buses, bars, and restaurants apply only loosely to parks and beaches; they are not enclosed spaces, and the dangers to non-smokers are significantly less. A good-sized park or beach should have enough space and ventilation for smokers and non-smokers to comfortably coexist.
Banning smoking in parks simply to encourage healthier habits would require a different calculus, raising a question of just how far a society should go to impose good behaviors on consenting adults. Keeping them from lighting up in a clearly open space would go too far, treating adult smokers like children.
The ill effects of smoking are well-established and are impressed upon kids from an early age. This is progress. But at a certain point, the state shouldn’t have a say in which legal activities are allowed in public. The ban proposed by LaMattina and Arroyo has good intentions behind it, but there are less restrictive ways to protect those who are sensitive to smoke while respecting the choices of others.