The University won the Ithaca Common Council’s approval to construct suicide nets under three city-owned bridges at a council meeting Wednesday night, clearing a major hurdle in its push to eradicate jumping deaths from Ithaca’s iconic gorge sites.
The 7-2 vote may prove to be a defining moment in both the history of Ithaca’s most distinctive landmarks and in the debate over how best to reduce the number of suicides at Cornell and at college campuses nationwide.
Pending minor approvals from other municipal agencies, Cornell hopes to begin building the nets this summer. It will remove each black fence — the barrier currently in place on all of the bridges near campus — once the net at that site is complete, according to Simeon Moss ’73, deputy University spokesperson.
In defending their decision, city officials emphasized that Cornell made several concessions — including minimizing the barriers’ visual impact, paying for the nets’ upkeep and addressing liability concerns — since public discussion about the University’s “means restriction” initiative began in the fall of 2010.
“It was very clear all along that there was no way I could consider supporting this if it was going to to cost city taxpayers anything at all, and Cornell did address that issue comprehensively,” Common Council member Dan Cogan ’95 (D-5th Ward) said at the meeting. “This agreement is about as good as it could be in terms of trying to hold the city harmless and keeping us from having to pay.”
Cogan noted that he was “predisposed not to support means restriction,” given his belief that “it makes life less fulfilling to be surrounded by fences and guardrails and things that protect [people] from the natural world around them.”
Still, Cogan said, he decided to support the nets proposal after discussions with local mental health professionals highlighted the potential for impulsive suicides.
“Ultimately, I don’t know if the average suicide rate is going to go down substantially in Tompkins County or Ithaca, but I have talked to a number of people about the importance of having that pause between [thinking of suicide] and the ability to take the action,” Cogan said.
Mayor-elect and Common Council member Svante Myrick ’09 (D-4th Ward) added that the University and its architects “went above and beyond to preserve what is really special about the bridges.”
But Common Council members Joel Zumoff (D-3rd Ward) and Ellen McCollister ’78 (D-3rd Ward) voted against the measure, arguing the barriers fail to remedy the underlying cause of suicide and that the University’s money could be spent more productively on other mental health initiatives.
“We’re going after symptoms instead of the root causes,” McCollister said, adding that she “greatly regret[s]” her previous vote to allow Cornell to install temporary, 10-foot chain link fences in response to a string of student suicides in the spring of 2010. “There is no proof the overall suicide rate is going to decline as a result of this.”
Zumoff added that, although he was impressed by the collaboration between the city and University, he was opposed to the nets.
“Without putting a particular monetary cost on human life, we can do a lot better with the amount of money that will be involved,” Zumoff said. “I applaud Cornell in its willingness to handle most of the costs to the city … but I cannot support this on philosophical grounds.”
Before the vote, about a dozen members of the community, including several Cornell students and employees, spoke about the nets proposal. All but one urged the council to approve the barriers.
“Many have said to us that in the depths of their depression, the fences …. indicate to them that someone cares enough about them and their constant struggle to help them live another day,” said Catherine Kim ’12, vice president of the mental health organization Cornell Minds Matter.
The city’s Planning and Development Board is responsible for approving Cornell’s proposal for means restriction nets under four University-owned bridges.