5 Ways We Design Our Cities to Make Them Inhospitable to Human Life (Photos)

Mar 9, 2015 by

Hostile architecture prevents society’s unwanted from inhabiting public spaces.
By Allegra Kirkland / AlterNet

It goes by many names: hostile, defensive, disciplinary. This style of architecture, which makes use of spikes, barricades, protrusions and checkpoints to prevent society’s unwanted from inhabiting public spaces, is not new. But its forms are proliferating, and it can now be found in urban centers across the globe, from Tokyo to Copenhagen.

As Alex Andreou put it in a recent Guardian article, “Urban spaces are aggressively rejecting soft, human bodies.” Andreou first noticed these examples of “anti-bum” architecture after a lost job and crumbling relationship left him out on the London streets, forced to seek shelter where he could find it. This proved more difficult than expected. From surveillance cameras that detect the presence of loiterers to window ledges ridged with spikes, Andreou encountered a built environment that was specifically designed to keep people like him out of public view. “It reveals how corporate hygiene has overridden human considerations, especially in retail districts,” Andreou writes.

The ostensible purpose of defensive architecture is security, and in some areas, particularly around major government buildings or high-density shopping malls, this may well be appropriate. But this style of design cannot be untethered from broader anti-vagrancy efforts, particularly in the United States.

AlterNet’s activism editor Alyssa Figueroa recently wrote about the many examples of municipal legislation used to restrict the movements and behaviors of the homeless; in California alone, there are 500 such laws on the books. They criminalize behaviors such as resting, begging, food-sharing or public urination, not taking into account how difficult it is for homeless people to find open beds in shelters, afford access to public restrooms, or pay fines. Hostile architecture facilitates the work of law enforcement by making it physically impossible for the homeless to inhabit public spaces. Neither approach actually addresses the root causes of homelessness, but instead shoves it out of sight.

Though defensive architecture primarily targets the homeless, it has profound and far-reaching social consequences. Teenagers, skateboarders, the elderly, pregnant, and infirm are all affected by spiked benches that don’t allow them a place to rest or by aggressive music designed to drive them away. “By making the city less accepting of the human frame,” Andreou writes, “we make it less welcoming to all humans. By making our environment more hostile, we become more hostile within it.”

Here are five examples of how disciplinary architecture is transforming the built environment of our cities.

1. Spikes, Cones and Pig’s Earsbumfree_bristol_02bum_free_london_15

These are one of the most ubiquitous examples of defensive architecture. Tiny metal spikes along fences, in doorways and on highway underpasses make it impossible for people to sleep or sit on these surfaces. Typically smooth surfaces like sidewalks become riddled with spikes, cement cones and protrusions. Pig’s ears, or small metal flanges, are inserted along low dividing walls and benches to deter skateboarders from riding on them. In Barcelona, a city with an enduring history of street prostitution, corrugated metal strips are attached to pull-down security grates in order to prevent prostitutes from congregating in shop doorways. And in China’s Shangdong province, city officials have installed coin-operated park benches that briefly retract their metal spikes only after the sitter feeds the meter.


Spikes ring a building entrance in Bristol, UK. (Courtesy of Nils Norman, Urbanomics Archive)


Concrete pyramids prevent people from sitting or lying down in London, UK. (Courtesy of Nils Norman, Urbanomics Archive)

2. Pavement Sprinklers

The convenient thing about defensive architecture is that it’s easy to come up with alternate explanations for its existence. Instead of admitting it’s a punitive measure, city officials and storeowners can explain it away as a means of shooing away pigeons, protecting sensitive locations like banks, or in this example, cleaning the streets.

In 2013, the Strand Bookstore in lower Manhattan, long a landmark for book-loving bargain hunters—and a refuge for the local homeless population—took a drastic measure. Managers noticed that people would camp out overnight under the store’s famous wide red awning, making it difficult for employees to set up the outdoor book carts in the morning and deterring potential customers. In response, they installed overnight pavement sprinklers that doused the sleepers and their possessions with periodic blasts of water.

The store manager insisted the sprinklers’ sole purpose was to keep the sidewalks clean and free of refuse. This would be much easier to believe or to write off as a coincidence if similar measures hadn’t been implemented in other cities, such as Hamburg and Guangzhou.

3. Unpleasant Noises

Not all aspects of defensive architectural are structural. Some rely on aural and visual cues to disperse unwanted individuals. In 2012, managers at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in downtown San Francisco resorted to unusual extremes to prevent people from sleeping on the auditorium steps. Using large outdoor speakers, management blasted the iTunes “industrial” soundtrack, a cacophony of motorcycle, jackhammer and chainsaw noises, from 11pm to 7am. The Vice President of Another Planet Entertainment, the company that manages the auditorium, called the soundtrack a “tremendously effective deterrent.”

Similar techniques have been used to target teenagers and prevent them from congregating in public parks and major downtown areas. So-called “mosquito” devices emit high-pitched tones that are only audible to young people—the human equivalent of a dog whistle.

4. Checkpoints and Privatized Public Space

By claiming sidewalks, public parks and city squares as private space, architects and store chains radically decrease the number of areas where the homeless can rest or sit. These areas are delineated with signs, barricades and in some downtown areas, militaristic checkpoints.

Artist Nils Norman has spent the last two decades documenting examples of disciplinary architecture from around the world. He has found countless incidents of the private reclamation of areas that were once communal, from checkpoints that block off streets in Manhattan’s Financial District to signs warning passersby that London’s Paternoster Square is private land and cannot be entered without permission. As proof of how access to communal spaces is selectively enforced, these signs were only erected after Occupy London protesters attempted to camp out in the square.


A checkpoint in lower Manhattan. (Courtesy of Nils Norman, Urbanomics Archive)


A sign in London’s Paternoster Square warns trespassers not to enter. (Courtesy of Nils Norman, Urbanomics Archive)

5. Benches and Seating

In California, legislators recently introduced the Right to Rest Act, a law that would protect all citizens’ right to occupy public spaces without fear of harassment or arrest. This legislation seems particularly critical given that cities are intentionally designing benches, seating and public squares to be off limits for homeless people looking for a place to sit or sleep. Nils Norman has chronicled hundreds such examples, from curved subway station perches that are fit only for leaning against to bus stop seats separated by dividers, preventing people from lying down. The curved design of benches in public parks also renders them unfit for sleeping.

These design tweaks are so subtle ordinary people probably wouldn’t notice them, but to homeless people, they speak volumes. Ocean Howell, a University of Oregon professor quoted in Andreou’s Guardian article, says, “When you’re designed against, you know it…. The message is clear: you are not a member of the public, at least not of the public that is welcome here.”


A perch-style subway rest in Lausanne, Switzerland. (Courtesy of Nils Norman, Urbanomics Archive)perch_subway_lausanne_0


A tripartite bench division at a Los Angeles bus stop. (Courtesy of Nils Norman, Urbanomics Archive).bench_la_02

Editor’s note: Nils Norman graciously gave AlterNet permission to use his photographs for this article.

Allegra Kirkland is AlterNet’s associate managing editor. Her writing has appeared in the Chicago Reader, Salon, Daily Serving and The Nation.

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