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Cornell Proposes Suicide Nets

Those who have been following Cornell’s efforts to install permanent suicide barriers can breathe a collective sigh of relief today. The university will not be advocating for prison-like steel bars on any of its bridges. In fact, it is only proposing vertical “fences” on one bridge, the suspension bridge. At six other bridges on campus, the university has proposed horizontal nets, according to an article by Jeff Stein at the Cornell Daily Sun.

Stein quotes Gilbert Delgado, the university architect, who says the nets were chosen because they were the least visually obtrusive of NADAAA’s designs. “For the most part, [the nets] will be invisible from the standpoint of when you cross the bridge … when you look down you’ll see the mesh but it will be very porous,” Delgado told the Sun. The ugly steel rod barrier on the suspension bridge that proved ineffective at preventing a suicide last spring will be removed and replaced with a taller wire mesh barrier.

While some have expressed concerns about nets, arguing that suicidal people will jump into the net and then jump into the gorge, no such behavior has been observed at the Bern Muenster Terrace in Switzerland where a net has been in place since 1999. Prior to the construction of the net there, the site averaged 2.5 suicides per year, but since the net went up, there have been no suicides from that bridge and, according to Delgado, who has been in touch with Swiss authorities, no one has had to be rescued from the nets either.

While Stein notes the controversy over whether barriers actually save lives, he misses a fine piece of irony: the Bern study was actually one of the studies that showed no significant decrease in the number of jumping suicides overall after the barrier went up—the suicide net that Cornell is looking to as its precedent does not appear to have helped anyone. What's more, the fact that no one even tried to jump at that site and people just chose to go to other sites without barriers should be instructive to Cornell. As I’ve reported in the past, no study has been able to show that suicide barriers save lives, two have suggested that people will just go to other sites once a barrier goes up, and two nationwide studies—one in the U.S. and one in Switzerland—have found that places with suicide bridges do not have more suicides overall than places without such bridges.

While Delgado says he is hopeful that the decision to construct nets will sway people who are opposed to the fences for aesthetic reasons, the comments offered on the Sun article thus far have been surprisingly negative. And Ithaca is Fences, which has been organizing support online, does not appear to be backing down. “We’re sticking with the position that nothing is the best answer,” says Heather Bissel. For Bissel and many people who are uncomfortable with the fences, this debate has never hinged on aesthetics alone; the fences are a waste of scarce resources that could be spent in a way that actually helps people, and doesn't risk displacing people to less traveled sites and more dangerous methods of suicide.

According to the Cornell Chronicle, the plans for the Cornell owned bridges must be approved by Ithaca's Planning and Development Board. The city has yet to make a determination on how to proceed with its own bridges.

Dan Jost | Posted on June 01, 2011 (#)

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