A closeup of a wooden bench with armrests.
Image Source: Lou Batier / Unsplash

The Cruelty of Hostile Architecture

U.S. cities are littered with hostile architecture that makes public-use amenities uncomfortable, inconvenient, or painful. Each design is targeted and strategically made to restrict and police behavior. Concrete walls come with metal caps to discourage skateboarding. Stones and spikes line the ground under overpasses to prevent sleeping. Marvel Studios promoted She-Hulk with benches whose center armrests ensure you can’t lie down (@TheSolarCoffee/Twitter). New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority said the quiet part out loud when it tweeted that “benches were removed from stations to prevent the homeless from sleeping on them” (Business Insider).

Governments and companies have long used infrastructure and architecture to provide amenities to some and not others. Long Island bridges are too low for buses so Black bus riders would be kept off the beach. But hostile architecture wouldn’t balloon to its current proportions until the 1980s, when U.S. elites were confronted with a stark rise in the unhoused population (BBC, Topic).

Deindustrialization, service cuts, the national failure to address AIDS, and accelerated gentrification pushed huge numbers of people out of permanent housing. This was a problem for businesses and politicians, though not for moral reasons (KCET, National Academies of Sciences). Post-industrial urban elites wanted to attract shoppers, tourists, office workers, and real estate developers, none of whom wanted to see the destitute and dying people they had displaced. That’s why the government’s solution to houselessness isn’t providing people with housing but driving them away from view (Topic). They remain unhoused but don’t lower property values.

TAKE ACTION

• Identify hostile architecture in your daily life. Remove hostile architecture through advocacy or direct action.

• Support community efforts to eradicate hostile architecture.

Hostile architecture is everywhere. The Strand Bookstore in New York installed pavement sprinklers to soak unhoused people who sit or lie down outside the store. Public benches are disappearing. Some have replacements with curves precisely proportioned to make lying down impossible. Others become 45-degree planks suitable only for a few minutes of awkward leaning. New York subway grates have metal spikes to turn “a potential winter comfort for a homeless person into a form of medieval torture” – a change designed to push people closer to death from exposure (Topic). Soofa sells solar-powered phone charging benches, a quirky, convenient, environmentally-friendly amenity with a charging station placed so the poor can’t sleep (BBC, CNN). There’s a subreddit and Twitter account full of examples.

It’s not just unhoused people who suffer when local governments decide to pay city workers to uproot seating areas. People with disabilities are forced to stand for longer than they can endure (Business Insider). Those without the means to opt-out of less-pleasant public spaces are stuck in worse conditions that the wealthy can avoid. We all lose when our municipality decides to spend its resources not to improve but worsen public areas.

Some demographics are more likely to be unhoused, such as LGBTQ+ people, military veterans, and people experiencing domestic violence (University of Alabama, National Coalition on Homelessness). However, 59% of people in the U.S. live paycheck to paycheck (Charles Schwab). We are often much closer to houselessness than most realize. You and most people you’ve ever met are likely a few poorly-timed emergencies away from becoming unhoused. If that happens, the businesses and governments that deploy hostile architecture will pay to increase your suffering just like they invest in the suffering of your unhoused neighbors today.

Governments claim unhoused residents as their constituents, subject them to (disproportionate and unreasonable) enforcement of their laws, and bear an internationally-recognized responsibility to ensure they are housed (UN). For government workers and politicians instead to use public resources to attack these same vulnerable residents while making public spaces worse for everybody is deeply shameful and inhumane. Every business owner and politician who creates hostile architecture should be forced to account for their actions or expect to see their designs destroyed. 

Shlubs for Housing is taking direct action by removing anti-homeless armrests from transit benches since center armrests on public benches are removable with a standard hex key (Boston, Twitter).  Activists poured concrete over anti-homeless spikes outside a London supermarket, leading the company to announce the spikes would be removed (Huffington Post). Space Not Spikes dealt with them by installing mattresses on top (Space Not Spikes/Vimeo). Father Júlio Lancellotti, an advocate for the unhoused, destroyed anti-homeless boulders in São Paolo with a sledgehammer (ArchDaily). “There is no law that solves social and structural injustice,” the priest said.


KEY TAKEAWAYS

• Public areas are made intentionally less usable to harm unhoused people. 

• Hostile architecture is a corporate and governmental response to the houselessness emergency that started in the 1980s. 

• 59% of people in the U.S. are close to houselessness.

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