For some time now, the concept of “hostile architecture” has been the subject of an interesting, complex, and even heated debate, as public space advocate and users started documenting examples they encountered. When we talk about hostile architecture, we are talking about all those details in public spaces that are specifically designed to keep people from sleeping there. Benches, corners, sidewalks, and windowsills that provide an unwelcoming sense of discomfort to its users. Also known as defensive architecture, this kind of hostile designs seem to have one clear purpose: to keep homeless people away.
Whether we find this in public spaces or next to private buildings, hostile design targets people looking for shelter or rough sleep, which has led to an intense debate without much dialogue about the way public spaces are designed. Usually, hostile architecture treats loitering, skateboarding, and homelessness as its targets, and incorporates physical barriers to keep such targets away, including spikes, armrests, and slanted designs.
One of the most common examples we might come across is armrests in long wooden or concrete benches. While one might think armrests are included to make benches more comfortable, the main purpose of these elements is to divide them into different sections, making it impossible to lay down on them and sleep there. This type of designs is meant to keep homeless people from sleeping on benches, making the public space a hostile space, particularly for the most vulnerable part of the community.
Slanted designs are also quite common and frequent examples of hostile architecture. It is easy to spot these slanted benches at bus stops or train stations, and they are so uncomfortable that it might be rare to see someone actually using them. Just as invasive armrests, slanted benches are designed to keep people from laying on them while still serving the purpose of providing users a place to sit while they wait for their bus or train, or at least trying to.
These are subtle examples of hostile architecture, as these unwelcoming and uncomfortable designs hide their main purpose in plain sight. However, when it comes to window ledges and sills, the public space becomes more aggressive, as cities and building owners seem to have a preference for spikes. These “anti-homeless” features of public design have a more direct message towards those looking for shelter or a place to sleep, and that message is that they are not welcome, creating a social rupture that instead of aiming at finding a solution to homelessness results in a violent message of rejection.
Therefore, we must be aware of how hostile architecture can affect those who are being targeted and try to find alternatives that aren’t violent or aggressive. After all, the main purpose of urban space should be to encourage people to interact, to take advantage of public spaces, and allow them to bond, not to segregate and isolate them.