If you’ve ever seen armrests installed across a street bench, you might have thought it was a convenient place to rest your arms. But to a homeless person looking for a decent night’s rest, it means they’ll likely have to resort to the concrete.
Hostile architecture, sometimes referred to as defensive or anti-homeless design, is a term coined to describe objects of the built environment that have been manipulated to prevent certain behaviors. Armrests that section off a bench so that someone cannot lie down. Metal bolts on a concrete ledge to deter skateboarders from practicing trick moves. Spikes around a public fountain to prevent loitering or panhandling. When exactly this practice began to be implemented is unclear, but the idea of using certain aspects of the built environment to influence behavior originated with the defensible space theory. It was developed by architect Oscar Newman and formally published in his 1972 book “Defensible Space.” This concept influenced the Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) design philosophy intended to create safer neighborhoods and prevent crime. But in some instances across the country, locals have protested that such practices are inhumanely targeting vulnerable communities.
Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, director of the Master of Urban Design program in University Miami’s School of Architecture, said that public spaces should be welcoming to everyone. “The streets and squares of our city are the one place we can all meet, no matter where we’re from or how much money we have or what color we are,” she said. “So public spaces in a city are a very important place to not be hostile, but to be welcoming. But also to keep people safe.” Plater-Zyberk recognized that there is a fine line between what is considered preventative for safety reasons versus downright hostile. “There is that whole arena of protection. How do you make people safe in a building without giving some sense of defensiveness beyond what the needs of daily use are?” she said. “This is a very interesting topic now because of the social justice conversation going on. It’s really bringing attention to whether places are welcoming or not. Maybe not outright hostile, but sending a signal of some kind of unwelcome difference.”
The public realm should be a place that we all feel safe and comfortable and welcome in.Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk
DIRECTOR OF THE MASTER OF URBAN DESIGN PROGRAM AT UM
The groups most influenced by this practice tend to be those who use public spaces more than others—namely, the homeless. Jennifer Lamy, a third-year graduate student in UM’s architecture program, said the topic is rarely talked about in class, but is something she has explored on her own time. “I understand it might seem unsafe or you don’t want them here, but still, it’s one of those things. Where else would they go? If you’re not going be the one helping them find a way, then at least for now let them be there. Especially when it comes to nighttime.” According to a January 2020 census conducted by the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust, the homeless population in Miami-Dade county is 3,560. Of those, 1,020 are considered “unsheltered.” Christopher Salomon, a senior at UM, was homeless for about seven months in 2013. Salomon said he regularly slept on sidewalks, at plazas and bus stops while wandering through Miami Gardens, Hallandale and Aventura. He recalled one night when he came across a “spiked” bench near 199th street. “The ‘abstract’ concept of the design was basically spikes. But they had the spike in the middle and it jutted out. So I was like, ‘I can’t really stay there,’” said Salomon. “Having a jutted out spike didn’t really have any intended use besides being a divider.” Lamy, who is looking forward to a future career in architecture, said she feels such design strategies are more inhumane than practical. “The fact that you design a bench that’s split in three parts specifically to prevent a homeless person from sleeping there, that’s not okay. If you’re going to put a spike on a bench to prevent that too, that’s not okay. These are public spaces. Public means anybody should be able to use them,” said Lamy. But she said it can be a different story when it comes to private property. “In terms of someone’s private property, I would assume they’re trying to prevent anyone they don’t know from accessing their space, not just a particular group of people. When it becomes problematic is when you’re targeting a specific group of people.”
Practices like hostile architecture speak to a larger problem outside of a designer’s jurisdiction, according to Plater-Zyberk. “A lot of the behavior in the public realm that makes people uncomfortable is because we have an inadequate system of helping the homeless and people with mental health problems,” Plater-Zyberk said. Salomon agreed, saying that “it’s not, per say, on the developers or designers, but it’s more so on the homeless shelters.” When Salomon sought refuge in a homeless shelter while living on the streets, he said it was overwhelming and unhelpful. “They make it quite difficult to be there. You have to be there as soon as doors open. When the doors open, you sign up for a bed. Then you have to go out to apply for jobs or make money to pay for that bed, and if you don’t make it back in time before closing or don’t make money, you technically don’t come back in,” said Soloman. “So you’re back on the street and don’t know where to go.” While architects alone can’t solve the issue of homelessness, Plater-Zyberk said that targeted and blatant exclusion is not the way to go about preventing any behavior. “Any defensive action that’s taken because no one else is dealing with it really should be as temporary and subtle as possible.” She cited one way she has seen others make tactics less hostile. “There were teenagers hanging around being rowdy and making adult shoppers uncomfortable. So one of the shops would start playing classical music to make the teenagers uncomfortable,” she said. “That’s what I mean with discretion and subtlety. It’s not permanent. It’s responding to a temporary condition. It doesn’t overreact.”
words_emmalyse brownstein. illustration_abby pak. design_mariana echeverri.
This article was published in Distraction’s winter 2020 print issue.