The United States has a hostile architecture problem. Is public space becoming private?

Anti-homeless policy has been a staple in cities all over the world for decades, whether those policies be forthright, like loitering laws and sit-lie ordinances, or peppered into a city’s infrastructure and public spaces. Hostile architecture, sometimes called “defensive architecture”, a trend in urban design which discourages the use of spaces in any way other than the intention of the owner or designer, has existed all over the world in various ways, but the most harmful examples have come in the way of targeting the homeless community, an already marginalized group, many of whom look for a place to sleep or rest during the day. They are met with a lack of access to public space.

Specific and egregious examples of hostile architecture and defensive design are prevalent and visible in major American cities. New York City’s long-famed Strand Bookstore installed sprinklers as part of their iconic awning, spraying people seeking shelter and sleeping under it. In early 2018, a homeless camp full of men, women, and children was cleared out by police action, only to be replaced by a set of 18 bicycle racks in an area where people do not frequently ride bicycles. A 7-Eleven store in Portland made headlines recently when it blared a high-pitch sound similar to an alarm outside the store to, according to the clerk, “keep homeless people away” [The store was subsequently informed that this may be in contravention of city code].

Tony Bernal, Senior Director of Public Policy and Funding for Transition Projects, a homeless organization in Portland which works to transition people out of homelessness and into housing, said of the design in their city: “The emergence of hostile architecture has compounded the moral crisis of our housing shortage. Too often we are leaving people experiencing homelessness with no place—indoors or outdoors—to rest or to be safe.”

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. Daytime services as well are not always easily accessible for everyone facing homelessness in these cities, and yet, cities continue to take away access to areas where those experiencing homelessness seek refuge throughout all hours of the day.

California, a state which is home to over 12 per cent of the population of the United States, is a particularly nasty offender in the game of hostile architecture, and it is an offense felt by the people who experience homelessness all over the state. In San Francisco, benches were removed in the middle of the night from Civic Central Plaza in the 1990s as well as United Nations Plaza in 2001, leaving nowhere to sit during the day for many of the plazas’ daily visitors and nowhere to sleep at night for those seeking refuge in a formerly accessible space.

San Francisco also implemented the use of “pee-proof” paint in several places in the city – UV-treated paint which forces urine to bounce back on the person urinating. It is designed to discourage public urination, which can be, in some cases, the only option for some who experience homelessness. In other cases, “decorative” rocks have been added to areas where some might congregate to drive them away. Sacramento, the state capital, faces its own troubles with defensive architecture, and many seem to believe that these design choices affect all members of the public, not just homeless people.

“Our downtown has incorporated hostile designs and practices, such as removing benches outside the library, erecting fencing to keep people out of alcoves, turning off all the water faucets, turning on sprinklers odd hours at parks, just some examples, all to discourage homeless people and loitering,” said Paula Lomazzi, the director of Sacramento’s street paper Homeward Street Journal. “What they have done affects everyone, making downtown uncomfortable for everyone, including shoppers.”

Philadelphia’s Love Park, located in the heart of the city, underwent a rather long, $26 million renovation, unveiled in 2018 and claiming to be designed as “more accessible and inclusive”. The question then became: Who can access and be included? The new benches installed in the beloved attraction are curved and slotted, metal bars dividing them into sections. While there has been a public outcry against some of the redesign, as it looks to the eye to be designed for keeping homeless people out of the public eye, the city remains steadfast in its support for what it believes is a more inclusive design.

“When Love Park underwent its redesign, there was a focus on making it more accessible and inclusive for all Philadelphians. By removing the barrier walls and uneven terrain that once defined the park, the Department of Parks & Recreation was able to create a smooth, welcoming area that could better accommodate people with disabilities, families with small children, and others,” city spokesperson Kelly Cofrancisco said when asked about the backlash. “The new benches reflect the standard design for seating installed across the city’s park system, with dividers that are supposed to encourage people to share the space and allow multiple people to sit on the benches.”

The rest of the city, known to all as ‘The City of Brotherly Love’, also houses spikes on the walls at Eight Penn Center, a famous curved “bench” in Eighth Street Station, and the world’s most controversial Starbucks – after last year causing worldwide controversy when two black men were arrested for sitting for too long, seating sections were removed due to a number of homeless people spending time in the cafe during the day.

“Really, the bigger issue is why people are sleeping in parks in the first place and what we as a community are doing to address that,” Cofrancisco stated. “We should be asking that question of American society, too, more than anything else. Here in Philadelphia, we’re proud to say that there isn’t an ‘us versus them’ mentality. Instead, we work together to ensure that people experiencing homelessness receive access to services as well as dignity and respect and that residents, workers, businesspeople, and visitors can enjoy Philadelphia as one of the best, most welcoming cities in the nation.”

While the city of Philadelphia and many others in the United States might be looking towards bridging the gap between the homeless community and the services that may assist them, day and night, this does not address what goes on in public, shared spaces.

“I think [hostile architecture] sends the message that people who sleep outside are not part of the community, are not our neighbors, and that it is alright to ostracize them,” The Contributor executive director Cathy Jennings said. “This type of attitude hurts any community.”

In the hands of so many cities right now is a question: who is welcome in public space? When the city builds an armrest in the middle of a park bench, it says to someone who needed to sleep there, “You are not welcome here”. When the city adds spikes to the cement of an already hard and uncomfortable sidewalk that once laid flat, it says to the person who needed to sit there, “You are not welcome here”. It makes the message rather clear. It does not need words on a sign, only metal and concrete instead.

To call much of this design work “defensive” architecture rather than “hostile” is inherently hostile in nature. The word implies that the public need defending from the sights and experiences of homelessness when they walk along the sidewalk or through a park for lunch, or walk home at night past someone sleeping under a store’s awning to get away from the rain. It implies that public space needs to be defended from the presence of other members of the public. They just might not be the “public” that a city wants on display.

There are instances in which public organizing against this type of design has been successful. When anti-homeless spikes were installed in Montréal, the outcry was so loud that the city removed them almost instantly, reopening that sidewalk space to whoever may need it. In Iowa City, local organizers rallied around a call for the removal of benches with armrests in the center, allowing for several to be replaced with benches without armrests; benches where someone, who might need to, can lie down and sleep.

These changes in design remain in place because those who think themselves unaffected tend to not notice these things, which would explain recent social media campaigns to call out hostile architecture, like the one launched by UK artist Stuart Semple, as well as projects like that of artist Sarah Ross, creator of the ‘Archisuit’, a padded garment designed to make it easier to lie down or sit in places where it has been made nearly impossible, drawing attention to this type of architecture. In the midst of all this, people facing homelessness are sent out of sight, maybe as a means to keep them out of the minds of a city’s residents and subsequent tourists, people who use those public spaces for leisure rather than out of necessity.

There are people who need this public space more than its audience desires it. More than someone needs a space on a divided bench to take their lunch break, there is someone who needs a place to spend their day, as other options for homeless people are limited during the daytime hours. Instead, those people are made to feel excluded, like they are not members of the deserving public at all.

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