Rush hour today - the morning one, 7:40 am to be exact - I was on the tram into the city center when a curious passenger came into my generally oblivious field of vision. There was no obvious dirt or telltale smell that would have alerted me that the passenger was a bit different than others, but something about the fit of the coat and casual way they sat their bag on the visibly dirty tram floor caught my attention. My gaze would not have lingered on the person long except that I noticed them pick a fallen bandaid off the filthy floor and reapply it to their hand whence it had fallen. Curiousity, boredom, and the person being in my field of vision held me then captivated to watch as said passenger proceeded to open their backpack, remove one large can of beer and slip it ever so obviously into the opening of one of their leather gloves. If the bandaid reapplication made me a bit uncomfortable, the (quite illegal in Oslo) public beer drinking so early in the morning got the attention of others - people shifted uneasily in their seats, averted their eyes, and subtly inched whatever few centimeters were possible in the opposite direction.
It is not comfortable to encounter different people, particularly those so far from the social norms we're accustomed to. But, I believe that simple encounters like mine this morning helps urban residents to grow as people.. I think to myself: 'This is the urban condition!" - just as much as being able to go to a fair trade cafe, see an independant theater production, or follow a live international lecture series. The everday act of living in a city offers countless encounters will people whose descriptions, proclivities, and lives in general might be unfathomable to us. We share public transportation, in fact all kinds of public infrastructure with all kinds of people. And in a city as evolved as Oslo (at least for now,) we all share the same rights to public space.
Being able to live in and encounter all kinds of people in public space is important, so that we don't begin to forget or deny the problems that plague cities, so that we don't forget that the people with problems are humans too. Sure, it makes some people uncomfortable, and enough research has come to convenient solutions that say "similar children play together best" (more or less as the Norwegian saying goes), but if not in public spaces, then when and where else will the average resident come across people who are different than they, outside their friends' circle, their income class, or other ethno/religious/you-name-it-self-segregating-group? It is all too easy to fear the unknown and create the sense of a risk where there is actually only strangeness. The way I see it, the only counter to such fear is the learning experience offered by chance encounters in public space. Very few are going to go out of their way to have a conversation with a stranger (particularly a strange stranger), and they are very unlikely to suddenly drop by for a coffee, so it is only out in the public, in cities, that this learning chance is offered. By instead distancing and allowing the segregation into whatever types of people, all people - humans - are denied the reality of their own diversity. Perhaps if we all had to face the plagues of our society each day, more motivation and resources would be found to attack the roots of the problems (be they alcoholism, drug abuse, pyschological issues, poverty, or otherwise), rather than using resources to attempt a falsely clean and homogenous image in public spaces and the creation of gated communities.