Updated: Apr 18, 2021
While controversial anti-homeless architecture is on the rise, are we actually designing cities that are anti-human?
Anti-homeless architecture is but one of many increasingly real issues facing rough sleepers in cities across the UK.
Out of 400 homeless people surveyed by Crisis, 60% observed an increase in anti-homeless architecture in 2016. Of these, 35% reported that as a result they couldn’t find a suitable place to sleep or rest.
But what is anti-homeless architecture?
Well, this type of design goes by many names – hostile architecture, hostile design, and defensive design, to name a few. It’s even labelled “designs against humanity” by hostiledesign.org, a website campaigning for more inclusive and welcoming designs in public spaces globally.
Anti-homeless architecture aims to deter ‘undesirable’ individuals from spending extended amounts of time in public areas. It’s achieved by making benches purposefully uncomfortable to sit on, or by adding spikes and stones in areas where rough sleepers might usually rest.
But what’s so bad about this kind of design? Doesn’t it make the public feel safer? Doesn’t it protect the general population by discouraging anti-social behaviour?
Well, not quite.
What it actually does is create hostile and unwelcoming spaces within cities. It pushes rough sleepers out of public spaces and into unsafe areas. And it enforces the idea that no one is welcome to spend too much time on the streets – after all, where's the line between merely sitting and loitering?
But, before we further explore the negative impacts of this type of design, let’s take a look at what might be considered anti-homeless architecture.
1) Slanted benches
Commonly found at bus stops and train stations, slanted benches work by forcing anyone sitting on them to remain almost half standing, so that they don’t slide off.
Their uncomfortable design makes them not only a deterrent to anyone wishing to sit for long periods, but they’re completely impossible to lie across without falling off. This means a rough sleeper looking for a place to sleep is forced to look elsewhere.
2) Armrests and dividers on benches
You might’ve noticed these if you’ve experienced a long delay at an airport and found that dividers between seats prevented you from lying down to get some rest.
That’s the aim. Physical barriers across benches make it impossible for anyone to lie across them, meaning rough sleepers are forced to sleep on floors instead of somewhere elevated and safe.
3) Floor bumps and spikes
Installed near doorways and under shelters where rough sleepers would usually rest, bumps and spikes make any surface impossible to rest on.
Spikes are particularly hostile, and not only appear threatening and aggressive to those sleeping rough, but to the public too. How can we feel safe in spaces where metal spikes are purposely installed as a campaign against our society’s vulnerable individuals?
4) Curved or unconventionally shaped seating
The infamous Camden Bench caused quite the stir in 2012, with its cold concrete surface and slanted angles. Designed intentionally to discourage anti-social behaviour, the bench was criticised extensively by the public. Notably, Frank Swain described the bench as “a symbol of the freedom we’ve lost in our public spaces – a freedom to use the spaces as we wish.”
Other examples, including benches that curve around a tree or monument, are designed to be impossible to lie across without falling off.
5) Loud music and sounds
Playing loud music, animal noises such as birds chirping, and recordings of traffic sounds appears to be devastatingly common according to Crisis' survey.
The survey reports these recordings played in tunnels where rough sleepers commonly spent the night, making it impossible for even the heaviest of sleepers to ignore.
Designing hostile cities affects us all
“Out of sight, out of mind” shouldn’t apply to real people who need real help.
Use of anti-homeless architecture doesn’t only refuse to tackle the urgent issue of people being forced to sleep rough, but actively attempts to hide it. It pushes rough sleepers even further outside the margins of society, and into areas where they’re at more risk of assault, and more likely to slip under the radar.
And it’s concerning when treating people in this way is almost normalised, accepted. Are we not breeding hostility within our communities when we internalise the notion that this type of design is acceptable?
It’s not as simple as just discriminating against one particular group of people.
When we begin to design with the aim of excluding or deterring certain individuals, we’re designing against humanity. We're treating human beings as pests or displeasing objects to be kept out of sight.
We're creating a ripple effect that tears through our communities and essentially normalises spending time, money, and resources on pushing those in need out, as opposed to actually helping them.
It means we have failed as a society. And as Alex Andreou writes in a 2015 article for the Guardian, “it makes life a little uglier for all of us.”
So, instead of purposefully designing cities to shut out those who are already struggling, we should be focusing on providing the support and resources to address issues of homelessness.
Homeless charity, Shelter Cymru, advises:
"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; and ensuring that where it does occur, meaningful solutions are on offer."
So, how can you help?
Getting involved can be as simple as drawing attention to and speaking up about these designs when you see them.
Here are a few ways you can flag instances of anti-homeless architecture within your community:
Post pictures on social media to raise awareness – Hostiledesign.org encourages members of the public to post pictures to Instagram using the hashtag #HostileDesign, to be featured in their Design Crime Gallery. They also offer their Design Crime sticker sheet, which includes stickers that you can place on any piece of anti-homeless architecture you see.
Sign online petitions – for example, there are currently petitions to remove anti-homeless architecture from Bristol and London. If you can’t find a petition for your particular city, you could even create your own.
Email your local MP – if you’re not sure who this is, you can find out by entering your postcode on the UK Parliament website.
Brushing people in need under the carpet is never the answer, and we as a society can't stand for it.
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