Have you ever considered it a privilege to be able to sleep on a bed and lie on a couch? You probably take your furniture for granted. I for one did until the pandemic struck, and my family’s housing situation became precarious, prompting me to research our options if we were to become homeless. What I discovered was revolting and gave me a new perspective on the struggles of the homeless who don’t have access to shelters. Alas, the majority of homeless people do not have direct access to common household furniture, and with the international rise of unpleasant designs, which are public architectural designs installed in urban areas to deter anti-social behavior, many cannot rely on street furniture either. Hence, these days it is difficult to imagine where homeless people go to rest if the only place they can turn to is the streets, yet all the streets have to offer are concrete floors embedded with spikes and slanted benches with extra armrests, making them impossible to lie on. Due to their silent attack on homeless populations, unpleasant designs like these often go by the names of hostile architecture, exclusionary designs, and anti-homeless architecture. Unfortunately, these menacing names are not enough to shift the public’s attention toward the victims of the designs, nor is it enough to stop property owners and cities from mandating the installation of such tactics. To lessen the physical suffering caused by not being able to find places to rest, local government officials in urban areas of developed countries should ban hostile designs that displace homeless people, disguise homelessness crises, and misuse money that could reduce the worldwide homelessness problem.
One of the main reasons that local government officials must stop implementing hostile designs into their cities is because they displace homeless people, especially those of color. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, in the United States, “African Americans make up more than 40% of the homeless population” (“Racial”). Plus, Indigenous Americans, Alaskan Natives, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders have a “share of the homeless population” that is “more than double their share of the general population” (“Racial”). Last but not least, Hispanic people make up “21 percent of the homeless population” (“Racial”). This means that if government officials choose to disregard the cons of hostile designs, then they are also playing into the systematic racism that plagues so many societies today. Kate Addison, who interviewed members of the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal, supports this notion by arguing that Canada’s long history of mistreating its indigenous people is relevant to its homelessness epidemic: “The displacement of a largely Indigenous portion of the population through urban design demonstrates the active role that colonialism continues to play in Canada” (Addison). As such, it is probable that the racist pasts of other countries are connected to the modern marginalization of homeless minorities as well. While most homeless people around the world tend to be of color, it is also important to acknowledge that all homeless people who have encountered hostile designs are victims of the indifference that cities exhibit toward minorities in general. As Rowland Atkinson, the co-director of the Centre for Urban Research at the University of York says, the use of hostile designs is a way that cities express “[w]e are not even going to allow you to accommodate yourself in the most desperate way possible” (qtd in Quinn). Surely, the homeless population’s use of street furniture is out of desperation, but it may also be out of concerns of safety and fear of the unknown. According to Kaitlin Jock from Street Roots, which is a homeless advocacy group, “People facing homelessness in many cities throughout the United States often feel safer spending a night in open public space than they do in shelters, but design policy forces people to reevaluate where they will spend the night” (Jock). Thus, the use of hostile designs means governments are leaving the homeless with no clear ideas of where they can seek safe refuge. If hostile designs that target homeless people were banned in all countries, then perhaps minorities would place more trust in the societal systems that failed them before.
Another reason that hostile designs must stop being used throughout the world is that they hide homelessness crises. Often, the hostile architectural changes done to an area are not obvious to regular passersby. For example, Andrew Fraieli from the Homeless Voice organization states that street benches have evolved enough to stop the homeless from lying on them, but not enough for pedestrians to stop using them or for them to notice anything other than “an odd shaped bench” (Fraieli). He also reveals that hostile designs are implemented into areas that usually only the homeless utilize, such as the corners of buildings and the grounds under bridges, which can have spikes or boulders molded into them to stop the homeless from loitering (Fraieli). So, if a group of homeless people leaves an area affected by new hostile designs, then nearby communities only have irregular looking designs as evidence that there is a homelessness crisis. Other times, hostile designs do not include architectural changes to a public area: “Hostile architecture can be as subtle as simply not providing a place to sit” (Hu). In these situations, it is even more difficult for citizens to identify the problem since there are no sudden changes to the area or any unusual constructions to hint at the discrimination at play. Consequently, the use of hostile designs can be seen as “attempt[s] by municipal governments, businesses, and police to push those who are suffering out of the public eye” (Addison). Rather than hide homeless individuals from the public by displacing them, city leaders and property owners should allow homeless people to seek refuge in public places to enable a better type of change, one that would force communities to come face to face with their problems. Ultimately, communities could work together to create or fund programs to resolve the source of homelessness or reduce the homeless population in their areas, but to do that, they would need money.
A third reason local government officials must stop implementing hostile designs into their cities is that it misuses money that could reduce homelessness. Hostile designs are expensive to install, yet they continue to be used in urban regions of the world. For instance, in 2017, 20,000 US dollars’ worth of metal studs were embedded onto the surface of a fountain located in downtown Toronto (Fallon). This is alarming considering that only one model of hostile design cost tens of thousands of dollars without including the money spent on other parts of the installation process or similar hostile designs in the city. To combat this, Welsh architect Jonathan Adams proposes, “the resources spent on designing, installing and maintaining these barriers would be better spent on addressing the root causes of homelessness to prevent it from occurring in the first place” (qtd in “Rough”). As Fallon and Adams imply with their statements, the combined values of all hostile designs in an average city must be in the millions. It would make a huge difference if the amount of time and money that cities dedicated to hostile designs were instead invested into more meaningful solutions like services that help the homeless on their journey to becoming middle-class citizens. This is because numerous homeless services, such as the shelters of Montreal, Canada, have “inadequate shelter space,” especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced small shelters to accommodate even fewer guests (Addison). Therefore, the combination of insufficient housing services and extensive use of hostile designs reveals that cities must fix their financial priorities to save people with financial or housing instability from homelessness and support those who are already homeless and would prefer to spend their time in shelters.
Despite the unethical effects of hostile designs and evidence that shows they often do not work as intended, proponents argue that they are necessary because they deter anti-social behavior. According to the Factory Furniture design team, which has developed some of the most popular unpleasant design furniture in the world, like the Camden bench, their creations certainly serve their purpose well because they do not receive complaints from residents (Savic and Savicic). However, not receiving complaints does not fully equate to the effectiveness of products. In fact, according to Ben Quinn from The Guardian, who observed a group of skateboarders in London “attempting to subvert the benches in the way they know best,” designs like the Camden bench can still be used to successfully perform the deemed “anti-social behavior” of skateboarding (Quinn). If even the most popular models of hostile architecture can be used to perform one of the main behaviors it intends to combat, it means it is not properly designed and might be lacking the features needed to prevent other “undesirable” actions, rendering it somewhat useless. Nevertheless, the Factory Furniture company also claims that their seating designs promote desirable social behavior: “There is no ‘correct’ way to sit on it as it merely hints at seat spaces. As a result, it becomes [a] far more inclusive seat encouraging social interaction” (qtd in Savic and Savicic). This claim can be challenged through the studies of Stuart Semple, who leads a campaign in Britain against anti-homeless architecture in public spaces and states that hostile seating “negatively impacts the elderly, pregnant women and disabled people” due to their sometimes “edgy” or “risky” shapes and features (qtd in Fallon). Thus, some hostile designs are so inefficient that they fail at deterring anti-social behaviors aside from homeless loitering, which is only transferred to other public spaces, and are unsafe, meaning they cannot promote socialization between community members, homeless or not.. Other individuals against hostile designs, like architect James Furzer, whose architectural designs oppose hostile architecture, also point out their ironic effects. Furzer argues that by using hostile designs to ward off anti-social behavior, which includes the prolonged occupation of a space to congregate, civic engagement becomes slightly unwelcomed (Lo). Accordingly, municipal governments must realize that hostile designs can neither truly fulfill their policing purposes nor eradicate homelessness symptoms.
Overall, local governments and businesses in the cities of developed countries need to change their approach toward the homeless. It is not logical to continue to waste valuable resources on hostile designs when they displace homeless citizens and push them out of the sights of those who might want to bring a local homelessness crisis to light. Nor is it logical for governments and businesses to use up several thousands of dollars that could fund services for vulnerable people. So, why use a strategy that cannot accomplish its purposes? Homeless people are residents of their communities too, and they deserve hospitality, not obstructions all over their cities advising them that they are not welcomed for something that is largely out of their control. Cities must mend their relationships with the homeless and offer them ways to rebuild trust in local leaders and work with their communities to escape poverty. Therefore, the first step for cities seeking this path would be to ban the hostile designs that have relentlessly attacked homeless people for so long. Join me in writing to mayors and state representatives to inform them why hostile designs are flawed and must go.
Fallon, Amy. “What’s Behind the Rise in Defensive Design?” Equal Times, 19 Aug. 2019, www.equaltimes.org/what-s-behind-the-rise-in.
Fraieli, Andrew. “Hostile Architecture: The Indirect Public Fight on the Homeless.” Homeless Voice, 30 Nov. 2020, homelessvoice.org/hostile-architecture-the-indirect-public-fight-on-the-homeless/.
Hu, Winnie. “’Hostile Architecture’: How Public Spaces Keep the Public Out.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 8 Nov. 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/11/08/nyregion/hostile-architecture-nyc.html.
Jock, Kaitlin. “You Are Not Welcome Here: Anti-Homeless Architecture Crops up Nationwide.” Street Roots, Street Roots, 9 June 2019, www.streetroots.org/news/2019/06/07/you-are-not-welcome-here-anti-homeless-architecture-crops-nationwide.
Kate Addison, News Editor. “THE VIOLENCE OF EXCLUSIONARY DESIGN: McGill Tribune.” The McGill Tribune, 6 Oct. 2020, www.mcgilltribune.com/exclusionary-design/.
Lo, Andrea. “The Debate: Is Hostile Architecture Designing People — and Nature — out of Cities?” CNN, Cable News Network, 7 Dec. 2017, www.cnn.com/style/article/new-dean-harvey-james-furzer-hostile-architecture-debate/index.html.
Quinn, Ben. “Anti-Homeless Spikes Are Part of a Wider Phenomenon of ‘Hostile Architecture’.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 13 June 2014, www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/jun/13/anti-homeless-spikes-hostile-architecture.
“Racial Disparities in Homelessness in the United States.” National Alliance to End Homelessness, 9 Jan. 2019, endhomelessness.org/resource/racial-disparities-homelessness-united-states/.
“Rough Sleeping: Call to Ban ‘Anti-Homeless’ Benches.” BBC News, BBC, 9 Mar. 2019, www.bbc.com/news/uk-wales-47468203.
Savicic, Gordan, and Selana Savic. “Unpleasant Design Book.” Un·Pleas·Ant De·Sign·, 22 Dec. 2013, unpleasant.pravi.me/interview-with-factory-furniture-design-team/.