What is hostile architecture? Hostile architecture is the intentional design objective of limiting and restricting what people can do, where they can go, and where they can congregate in a public space. The idea targets the homeless and other marginalized groups, keeping them away and out of sight. Unfortunately it also affects other members of the public such as the elderly, people with disabilities, and children. Hostile architecture superficially addresses the symptoms but not the underlying causes of homelessness.

Hostile design can be subtle in its execution and but at times quite obvious.

It is recognizable in any urban setting if you take a moment to look.

For example, slotted dividers or spacers between benches deter a person from stretching out and sleeping on park and transit station benches. A recent trend in metropolitan centers is “leaning” benches. A slanted bench seat allows only a brief lean, but too uncomfortable for any long term sitting. Spikes are popping out everywhere. What was once thought of as a deterrent for birds nesting in the eaves of buildings are now on much more pedestrian surfaces—tops of walls, steps, and even in the right angle inside corners of buildings.

Some deterrents are disguised as architectural features obscuring their true purpose. One designer defended his undulating bench in a transit station, running serpentine along a wall, having almost no usable sitting space as being aesthetically interesting and a solution to typical square, 90-degree surfaces found in such places. Another common one I’ve found is where the area on each side of entrance steps is severely sloped from the building down to the street—no chance of anyone sitting on that surface for too long. Others include see-through entrance vestibules and maze-like entrances to public spaces.

Most striking are the sprinklers installed at the Strand Bookstore in New York City under the awning to clear out folks seeking shelter. A Seattle commercial building installed 18 bicycle racks in an area used as a homeless camp. The area is well away from any commuter routes or where anyone would ride bikes. A high-pitched siren was installed outside a Portland 7-Eleven—something like farmers use to scare away birds from precious crops.

Hostile architecture solutions are like filling your gas tank with water. Sure, the gas gauge reads full but the car simply won’t run and it’s missing the point. Water is not a substitute for gasoline, just as spikes and deterrents are not viable solutions to homelessness. Artist Sarah Ross pokes fun at the absurdity of hostile architectural solutions with her brilliant wearable “walkarounds for defensive architecture.” She creates suits that have padded contours that allow the wearer to fill in the hard spaces installed to deter people from sitting or lingering. One particularly humorous design is a series of triangular foam blocks on the backside of the suit designed to form a comfortable seat when placed on a 45-degree sloped surface. Other foam blocks cushion the spikes found on tops of walls. Ross is part of a growing social justice movement addressing the problem of homelessness in creative and evocative ways.

Hostile architectural design clearly intends to decide who is welcome and who is not in a pubic space. It does so in a harsh and punitive manner, dehumanizing and further marginalizing an already compromised population, the homeless. Collateral damage is also thrust upon the elderly, handicapped, and the children. Everyone suffers when our public spaces are designed to exclude rather than include. We would be better off focusing our attention on building safe and dignified homeless housing, and addressing the underlying causes of homelessness. Providing comprehensive physical and mental health services would go a long way to getting people off the streets.

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