Hostile Architecture: Alienating Identities in Urban Spaces

Space can be separated into two categories: Public space and private space. The opportunity to own private space is a fundamental aspect of any liberal society, though not all members of society are able to capitalize on this opportunity. Public space, in contrast, does not depend on one’s ability to own property or one’s access to capital. Ostensibly, it is for the entire public; it does not discriminate or bar individuals from accessing it. This distinction, though, may be an oversimplification. In reality, recent trends in design and city planning have brought into question for whom these public spaces really exist. The invention and increasing presence of hostile design has begun to challenge the idea that public spaces are for all people. Moreover, it has raised the question of who is identified as part of the “public”.

Hostile design, sometimes labeled defensive design, refers to a series of design measures aimed at limiting the ability for certain groups of people, primarily homeless people, to engage with public spaces. Walking through New York City, many hostile design concepts can be observed throughout pubic parks, outside storefronts, and in city streets. These designs include extra arm rails on benches, spikes on flat surfaces, and strategically places sprinkler systems, all aimed at preventing homeless people from sleeping in public spaces.

In an interview with Azure Magazine in 2018, author Selena Savic argues that the implementation of hostile design seeks to achieve a sort of utopia by “reducing the opportunities for mischief and misconduct”. This focus on reducing unwanted behavior seems rather universal among proponents for hostile design. However, the effect of these defensive strategies is a segregation of class and abandonment of a community’s most vulnerable members. Furthermore, as hostile design has become more apparent in cities all around the world, the amount and types of groups targeted by these designs are increasing as well. More hostile design concepts have come into play with the intention of excluding groups such as skaters and drug users. It seems as though the increase in groups excluded by hostile design inherently places greater limits on who is included within society’s definition of “citizen”. When put plainly, it is absurd to place qualifications on the term citizen; still, communities have accepted these qualifications when they hide behind the facade of “defensive design”.

It is important to note that the negative consequences of hostile design are not weighed as necessary costs to an increase of convenience to the majority. Rather, in many cases hostile design disturbs daily life even for those not targeted by the designs themselves. Alex Andreou notes that “when we make it impossible for the dispossessed to rest their weary bodies at a bus shelter, we also make it impossible for the elderly, for the infirm, for the pregnant woman who has had a dizzy spell”. Hostile design is intentional. It is created and implemented with the sole purpose to deter certain groups from using public space in ways that the majority find inconvenient or unpleasant. Often, this purpose is hidden by a focus on aesthetics.

Analyzing hostile architecture alone might provide us with an answer to the question of who is included in the “public”; that is, the public is made up of those who buy into it. Implicitly, then, public spaces are made for and geared toward those who have purchased their right to be considered the public. In other words, the right to access public space is increasingly limited to those who can purchase private space. However, this characterization of the “public” is deeply problematic. The very idea that becoming a member of the public should be some elite status to be achieved  is in opposition to the general notion that the public should include all people living in a stated community -- in particular, this conception excludes the homeless. Secondly, and perhaps more subtly, the use of hostile design to exclude certain individuals from public spaces blends, if not eliminates, the divide between public and private spaces. What’s more, it gives private property owners control over public spaces.

The social and moral implications of granting control of public spaces to those who own private property reach far beyond class segregation. In Hi-Phi Nation’s podcast “Freedom and Hostile Design”, Richard Rowland explains that those who own property have their own private space for their basic human functions, such as sleeping and going to the bathroom. Those without private space are only welcome in public space. Hostile design enables those public spaces to be designed to prohibit such people from using them for basic human functions. Hiding behind its aesthetics, hostile design pushes the most vulnerable people in an area out of the public eye. More drastically, it forces them out of livable conditions and prohibits even the most desperate efforts to carry out these necessary functions.

Despite any negative social implications, the acknowledgement that property owners provide funding for public spaces through taxes remains a major moral consideration. Ella Morton points out that “all urban architecture or urban design has a level of control built into it”. If that is the case, then who should have the power to decide how the design will control the public? Advocates for defensive design argue that because tax money funds the benches and other architectural aspects of public spaces, taxpayers are entitled to implement measures to keep these spaces safe and clean. Richard Rowland highlights that “the taxpaying public wishes to use public spaces in certain ways that the homeless, skaters, and loiterers threaten”. It seems that their solution, mobilized through hostile design, is to make public spaces unusable for unwelcome members of the community. These arguments, regardless of their validity, rest on the principle that public spaces are reserved for the tax paying members of a community. Perhaps, it, too, rests on the principle that a community is only really made up of those who financially contribute to it.

In theory, any community is made up of a myriad of different peoples, from upper-class to lower-class, from owners of Park Avenue duplexes to those who sleep in homeless shelters or on top of subway grates. A community contains both those who own property and those who do not; that is, until we start limiting the scope of our community to taxpayers, or more subtly, until we start granting control of public spaces to private property owners alone.  By blocking those who are unable to own private space from occupying public spaces, hostile design limits who can be considered a part of the “public”.

Social stratification has long been a reality within society. The idea that the upper and middle classes do not wish to engage with homelessness and poverty is not new or surprising. Hostile design may be a product of these attitudes, but its implications for society are far more substantial. Rather than dealing with difficult issues like homelessness, hostile design simply puts them out of sight and out of mind. It pushes those deemed unworthy of belonging to the “public” to the fringes, drawing a clear line that marks who belongs in our shared spaces and who does not. Even more troubling, when members of a community utilize hostile design to control the remaining non-privatized space, the homeless are left without any space at all, forcing them to constantly be where they are not allowed. On a greater scale, the intentional and harsh exclusion of the homeless from any and all spaces says a great deal about our society and those who plan, approve, and support our public spaces: the convenience and comfort of the more fortunate is more important and more worthy of accommodation than the basic needs of others.