The Hostility of Our Places

While architecture may not be thought of as a hostile concept in itself, some architectural and urban design principles can be hostile in its impact and intention. To many of us, these subtle designs have little impact on our daily lives, but to the most vulnerable people in our society, they can be harmful and dehumanizing. Examples of hostile architecture are often hidden in plain sight — in public seating, surfaces, barriers, and surveillance. They can be slanted, curved or segmented benches; armrests on benches; spikes on window sills. Oftentimes, hostile architecture is used to prevent homeless people from loitering or sleeping in public places, discourage crimes, or prevent damage to property.

For example, some public seating is designed to prevent sleeping. Using armrests or bulky designs, it allows users only to sit temporarily, discouraging users from sitting too long or sleeping on it. This type of design is targeted to prevent people from sleeping in public spaces, typically targeting homeless populations and youth.

In New York, they went as far as removing benches and introducing leaning bars, made of wood. But taking away benches negatively affects everyone, especially someone as vulnerable as people with disabilities.

Surfaces, like studs, spikes or rocky pavements are sometimes hazardous. Some may look decorative, but they have a hidden purpose — to keep people from loitering or sleeping.

It’s unclear when exactly this kind of architecture started, but hostile designs have been present since the 19th century. For example, during that time period in England, cone-shaped stones were placed at the corners of buildings, preventing people from relieving themselves there.

Closer to the 1980s to 1990s, hostile architecture started becoming more common because of “broken-windows theory of policing” in America, which criminalized any sitting, standing, waiting, and sleeping on public streets. This led architects to create designs to stop those behaviours.

On the other hand, the design is important in some aspects. Supporters argue that this type of defensive architecture can be helpful ways to lower crime rates and create barriers, by creating an environment that discourages crime in public spaces. However, it often leaves vulnerable populations in an even more difficult position.

Surveillance is one topic that has emerged recently as a controversial design concept. Surveillance typically has defensive architecture with harsh lighting and security cameras, creating psychological discomfort. Ontario spent roughly $25M over the next 4 years to increase police cameras, with the intention of reducing gun and gang violence. Some cameras were planned to be installed in the Jane and Finch community, but it angered some residents as some believed it would increase racial profiling in the neighbourhood. Additionally, many residents felt that they were not consulted as part of the decision-making process.

One community member described the increase in surveillance as: “All it will do is increase police powers and increase the role of policing in our lives. And I think that’s something that we’ve been trying to work so hard in this community to push back against, police in schools, carding.”

On the other hand, others feel that cameras can help detect and deter unwanted activity and crimes.

There has been a considerable investment made on surveillance, let alone the hostile architecture of our public spaces. Is it really worth it? Does it solve anything or is money being wasted?

Some organizations are actively re-designing spaces to make them more welcoming. A nonprofit organization in Vancouver called RainCity Housing flips a billboard on the benches, allowing people to sleep on the bench. The billboard also lights up, making it feel more safe and inclusive.

There are better alternatives that are more effective and inclusive than hostile architecture. Hostile architecture often pushes homeless people out of the public, rather than solving for the root of the problem. Public space is not really ‘public space’ when it is designed with hostility in mind for certain groups. Public spaces should be accessible to all — designs should consider the ecosystem, environment, and all members of society.