The debate over the human toll of anti-homeless “defensive design” is heating up around the U.S. and abroad.
The city of Seattle’s installation of new bicycle racks in its Belltown neighborhood last fall was met with mixed reception. The racks replaced a homeless encampment, and some locals decried the city’s move as an act of “hostile architecture,” intended to displace those who had been taking shelter there. After public outcry, the racks were removed last week and, Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office said in a statement, will be reinstalled in “appropriate areas that support the city’s bike riders and commuters.”
The Seattle bike racks are part of a larger conversation about what’s been labeled hostile, or defensive, building. In 2015, retailers in the UK made headlines for installing metal spikes around their entrances, it was argued by critics, to deter loitering (and smoking, littering, and sleeping, all activities presumably not healthy for retail business). This year, #hostilearchitecture is trending, with photos of park benches with armrests down the middle that can render them impossible for sleeping, boulders planted into former homeless gathering places, and sprinklers engineered in public spaces for the presumed purpose of watering squatters, not greenery. And the trend is bad for civic life, says Cara Chellew, a researcher for the Global Suburbanisms Project at Toronto’s York University. “The elements that make spaces hostile for targeted populations also make them hostile for the general public,” Chellew says. “Vulnerable groups of people suffer disproportionately when there is a lack of benches, public washrooms, and shelter from the elements.”
British artist Stuart Semple launched an anti-hostile-design campaign last month when he began spotting metal bars being retrofitted to benches in his hometown of Bournemouth, England. A photo Semple posted to Facebook went viral, and within a week the town removed the bars. This kind of design, Semple says, “makes public space hostile and uninviting and threatening, and that connotation spills into the whole function of spaces.”
But for others working in the design of public spaces, the conversation is more complicated. Richard Goloveyko’s metalworks firm Veyko designed curved metallic benches for Philadelphia’s subway stations in 2010, he says with a mind to homelessness and other urban issues. Those same benches have now been tagged by some as hostile. The challenge was to create an “interesting, evocative form, taking defensive stances into account,” the designer says, like that Pennsylvania SEPTA didn’t want people lingering on the platform for extended periods. “A major metropolitan subway station is one of the most caustic environments. It’s not a park or an outdoor space. They periodically pressure-wash an entire station. It’s not something you’re going to put a Chesterfield sofa into.” Seven years later, Goloveyko maintains, the bench remains “an interesting form. It’s well used, it’s comfortable,” and it has withstood the wear and tear of millions of public commuters. In other words, he says, it’s anything but hostile.
In Charlottesville, Virginia, public benches were removed in 2012 from the downtown mall, a multi-block strip of stores and public space dotted with trees—an act some called defensive design to deter panhandling and loitering. Kathy Galvin, an architect and Charlottesville city councilor, is actively involved in the issue. “The pedestrian mall is a public space that was bricked over in the 1970s, designed by landscape architect Lawrence Halprin. It’s inherently a public space that cannot be exclusive.” That said, as a public servant Galvin’s priority is also to protect the safety of her constituents. Beyond the issue of ample benches, she said, the city is working on outreach for vulnerable populations and more inclusive programming for the mall. “We are also investing more than ever in affordable housing, in creating jobs, programs, and apprenticeships. Our goal is to be a private city that balances sustainability, viability, and beauty all at once. You have to get the details right and the big picture right. The bench is a detail we have to get right.” The Mall is currently undergoing an architectural review, in order to preserve the Halprin design and to meet the evolving needs of that public space—including the benches.