Hostile design: a misguided movement to make civic space friendlier to the friendless.

It’s rare that an article assumes an urban activist position that gets my dander up at all, let alone one that prompts me to comment directly on the article.  But that’s what I had to do a few weeks ago when Planetizen used the neologism (at least to me) “defensive urbanism” to impugn the modern park bench.  This Planetizen capsule summary cited both an article from Canadian Architect and the work of a local public space advocate in what I have to assume is the comparatively new sub-discipline of defensive urbanism or hostile design —that is, the practice of introducing micro-barriers that protect public spaces “against unwanted occupation by skateboarders and unhoused people”, among other things.

If the above description isn’t clear enough, the photo below should shed light.

skate stops on railings as hostile design, Oakland

This picture comes from City Center, a mixed-use development in downtown Oakland that harnesses its proximity to a major stop (12th Street) on the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) line.  Oakland City Center, a redevelopment initiative that pedestrianized multiple blocks of the city’s downtown, ostensibly began in the late 1950s as part of local urban renewal initiatives, but, from my perspective, the appearance is redolent of the 1970s and 1980s.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course.  Its optimal, central location—with passers-by using BART to get to jobs in San Francisco or coming from across the Bay to work/live in downtown Oakland—ensures it a reasonable density and foot traffic that promote utilitarian retail and grab-and-go eateries in the many storefronts.  During my visit in 2018, City Center looked fine.  Not flourishing, but fine.  It’s probably fairly busy during the lunch hour and during the peak periods for commutes.

But it doesn’t look contemporary or like it has had much of a refresh since the era when concrete and neon signage were popular.

About the only feature that suggests a more recent investment is a tiny detail on those railings.

See it now?  It’s those chrome “washers”—the semicircular piece of metal appended to the railing at intervals.  The industry name for them is skate stops.  They exist for no other reason than to deter skateboarders, who otherwise love to grind down these angled railings, causing scratching damage over time as well as a potential liability for the owners of the plaza space, if the skater should fall and injure himself/herself or some other hapless passer-by.  Those skate stops ensure that performing such tricks will be highly unpleasant for the skaters.  So they won’t do it.

Cross the bay over to San Francisco Civic Center Plaza and we see it again, on railings that aren’t angled.

skate stops as hostile designs at San Francisco Civic Center

The skate stops are also common on ledges.

skate stops on ledges as hostile design, SF Civic Center

Concrete seating areas like the one in the above photo nearly always offer the telltale indicators of a skater, if they don’t have those little impediments at the edge every few feet.  Without them, the concrete gets discolored, worn, and eventually deteriorated through skaters’ repeated attempts at grinding.

Perhaps more important within the context of the Pamela Young’s Canadian Architect article, however, is the installation in the background of the first Civic Center Plaza photo.  Here’s a closer look.

ridges on benches as hostile design

I’m referring primarily to the benches in the background.  Every two to three feet is a protruding “ridge”, which, aside from repelling those pesky skaters, clearly deters people from lying across the bench and treating it like a bed.  Obviously this feature helps ensure that more people have the opportunity to sit on benches; in the examples at Civic Center Plaza, it means at least three or as many as six people can fit on a bench (depending on seated pairs or solo), as opposed to just one or two.  At its core, these ridges ensure that more people can partake in the plaza’s amenities, if we presume that the primary feature of a bench is for sitting and not for lying down. 

Such impediments are increasingly visible in urban parks and civic spaces, but they’re hardly exclusive to this milieu.  Here’s an entirely unrelated gathering space in which the furniture operates under the same principles.

armrests become hostile design in airports

In this instance, the seating comes from Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport (SDF), but it’s just as easy to refer to it as “an airport”.  These chairs are basically the standard in airports across the country.  Arm rests everywhere; seating for one.  (The only recent addition is that some now feature plug outlets and USB ports in the arm rests.)  Compare this to the standard furniture in airport gates 30 or 40 years ago; they had benches, which passengers invariably used to stretch out and catch a nap, thereby often depriving other people of a reasonable seat.  Elsewhere in the Louisville International Airport, it’s possible to find places to stretch out, like the loveseats along the window:

But these are the exception; not the rule.  Hostile design still works as a deterrent, even in a place that is nowhere near as publicly open as a downtown civic plaza.  Airports aren’t something anyone can just walk up to, and the gates for departing flights require people to show proof of identity and a boarding pass.  Then there’s the TSA rigmarole. Not a lot of unhoused people in airports.   Yet the airport authorities still recognize the need to ensure seating is available to as many people as possible by deterring space hogs who will stretch out.

This reasoning, and this distinction between public space users who sit versus those who sleep, inevitably sets the stage for the argument that Planetizen, Canadian Architect, and hostile design opponents are positing.  From their perspective, hostile design sends a message that certain people, specifically the “unhoused or youth” (per Pamela Young) “are unwelcome to linger”.  Such a statement resonates in San Francisco, long one of the nation’s epicenters of homelessness.  And furniture with hostile design features can hardly speak more powerfully than in Frisco’s Civic Center Plaza, long the domain of the chronically homeless, and just a stone’s throw from the Tenderloin neighborhood, the decades-old hub for single-room occupancy apartments (SROs), tent-dwelling homeless, social services for the indigent, and acceptance of an open drug trade and unapologetic opioid abuse.  This constitutes a sizable portion of the homeless population in the Civic Center, and, being homeless, such people are more likely to see a park bench or any other horizontal service as a makeshift bed.

Up until about five (and certainly ten) years ago, the general perspective was that, although homelessness warranted compassion, their plight didn’t justify such accommodating treatment as to allow them to overtake park benches, thereby preventing the likely more short-term use by other visitors.   Planetizen and Canadian Architect seem to come to the conclusion that thwarting bench sleeping is simply unkind.  Another website encourages people to flag such furniture—and, no doubt, the skate stops—as a “DESIGN CRIME”— for its tendency to attack “the must vulnerable people in our community, regularly the homeless”.

To which I, an urban advocate, can only respond, “Well yes.”  That was entirely the point.  Those with either historical memory or the knowledge through research know full well how unsavory most urban public spaces became in the second half of the twentieth century.  Either devoid of verdure and unappealing or overtaken by homeless, and unappealing, advocates for good civic space sought to render them inviting to the status quo: middle class people, often with children, which often meant deterring the homeless, the skaters, or other loiterers.  

Benches with armrests, ridges, and skate stops all ofter worthy compromise; they don’t eliminate the park amenities, but they ensure that they don’t face quick deterioration (from skaters’ tricks) or colonization (from the homeless).

Pamela Young in Canadian Architect claims that arm rests are often “disingenuous”—only a few designs actually help mobility impaired people get in and out of a seating position.  Well, yes—but that’s because lying on a bench is monopolizing it.  Whether the person lives in a suburban McMansion or a cardboard box, it is a prima facie selfish act.  Not good enough, asserts Young: “at a time when a burgeoning number of Canadians are unhoused or precariously housed, how can we create public spaces that people from all walks of life can comfortably share?”

My response is cruelly dismissive: we cannot.  Simply put, we must choose.  The most vocal hostile design opponents genuinely envision urban parks with “service kiosks. . .staffed by people with expertise in harm reduction and de-escalating conflict, and providing resources such as needles disposal.”  Yes, these visionaries seem to think that all classes will comfortably and blithely share a park while homeless people sleep on the benches, and those who are sitting upright are injecting their veins with heroin.  Peaceful, harmonious co-existence, so long as those hapless workers in the kiosks can step in for intervention if a violent conflict emerges.  (How much money would you have to pay these “people with expertise” to deal with violent junkies while presumably remaining unarmed?)  Best of all, these advocates for eliminating hostile design cite the work of William H. Whyte, whose seminal The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces used intense observations of the few successful plazas in crime-ridden Manhattan in the 1970s to better understand how to replicate them.  And much of this had to do with ensuring that the status quo felt comfortable and safe.  If Whyte documented an example where families took their children to picnic amidst scores of sprawling homeless strung out on drugs, he was awfully coy about it.  Furthermore, Jane Jacobs, the godmother of the modern urban planning movement, inveighed against the sort of bifurcated social neglect/social acceptance that allowed Franklin Square in Philadelphia, the least vibrant of William Penn’s original design of four squares, to turn into a homeless park when Jacobs chronicled her 1950s observations in The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

No doubt, the hostile design crowd will find some (precious few) middle class people willing to sit and read a book within spitting distance of heroin users.  But is there enough of the former to offset the latter?  I’m deeply skeptical, and the evidence we have is the history of urban parks devolving into homeless camps, when enough people can no longer tolerate the erratic behavior of unmedicated schizophrenics or opioid abusers, two characteristics that overlap heavily with the homeless.  Plenty of people are equally turned off by skaters, who (though often undeserved) have a reputation of anarchic rebellion not entirely exclusive to criminality.  And skater tricks invariably cause damage to benches, ledges, and railings—precisely the reason so many cities have constructed dedicated skate parks to accommodate these kids.  They can grind all they want over there.

What sort of Shangri-La do the hostile design opponents think they can foster by reintroducing the old-school park bench, removing the skate stops, and installing porto-johns for the homeless to use?  Look no further than San Francisco and Oakland in 2022, whose conditions have deteriorated significantly even since my 2018 photos.  This desire to help “the most vulnerable” presupposes that some people aren’t subject to the enforcement of laws regarding loitering, squatting on public lands, using illegal drugs, defecating or engaging in other acts of public indecency, simply because of a “vulnerable” status conferred upon them as part of an overall compassionate mission, which in turn exculpates them from any civic responsibility.  This ethos offers the unintended consequence of rendering parks undesirable if not completely unusable to the “non-vulnerable”, while doing nothing to improve the state of people mired in homelessness, addiction, and mental illness.

“Harm reduction” by this definition does not abide by a Pareto optimality paradigm any more than it encourages lively civic spaces based on Whyte’s carefully observed conclusions.  It manages (unintentionally but unavoidably) to drag everyone down to the lowest denominator: an opioid addicted homeless person living in squalor.  Those who find it intolerable will simply leave the park, till only the drug addicts remain, sprawled on their benches.  Most importantly, the empathy this philosophy professes only looks at harm reduction as an end in itself, not a means to a better end: most if not all of the people whose lives are tough because of hostile design will die prematurely because of the social enabling that results from the elimination of these barriers.  After all, eliminating armrests and bench ridges ascribes to the same ethos as eliminating consequences for open-air heroin use.  For those of us who have long advocated for vibrant urbanism, who cheered when long-neglected public spaces became popular and playful once again, as they did in the 90s and 2000s, we can only speculate how bad things might get, should this ideology get carried out to its full end…which is endless.  (The goal posts will just keep moving.)  I liked the cities of the 2010s better than the images I see from the cities of the 1970s.  And while we may not fully repeat history, I see hostile design opponents as laying the rail road tracks that serve as the meter for a sort of poetic rhyme.  Unfortunately for them (but good for me), not many people see poetry in poop.

Special credit to Sarah and Jonathan McAfee for their insights on skateboarding terminology.

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10 thoughts on “Hostile design: a misguided movement to make civic space friendlier to the friendless.

  1. Chris B


    (Although I have seen people thread themselves under the armrests of airport seating to stretch out and nap. And unhoused folks have defeated seat dividers by piling foam, blankets, or debris around them. People, being generally intelligent beings, will “adapt and overcome”.)

    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      If you’ve made it through an airport’s security and are skinny enough to fit in those armrest tunnels, you’ve probably earned yourself a brief nap. The keyword of course is “brief”–aside from Mehran Karimi Nasseri, nobody makes a point of long-term camping in a terminal. I can recall many years ago, during a layover at MEM, I had a stomach bug and was in such pain that I selfishly tried the “thread” approach you described. It wasn’t comfortable, but it did keep me from ralphing.

      Not surprising that we talk about “adapt and overcome” just a few weeks after the pigeon spikes article. If pigeons can come up with workarounds, obviously humans can. It’s interesting to me how much more stuff the homeless of 2022 seem to have than they did 20 years ago. The tents, though occasionally visible early mornings in Chicago’s Lincoln Park when I used to live, have only become widespread in the last few years. Cardboard boxes are a thing of the past. I get it: they don’t survive rainy weather. But tents take time to set up and require some degree of money and coherent thinking (which many homeless lack). The biggest explanations I can think of:
      – Pricey REI tents are charitable donations
      – Loitering has been de facto decriminalized in many cities, so the tent setups are a one-time deal. They become essentially permanent squatter settlements (not entirely an oxymoron).
      – Drug users prefer rough sleeping over shelters, since 95% of shelters require sobriety as a condition of entry
      – The non-addicted (the genuine poor who cannot find affordable housing) tend to keep very tidy spaces areound their tents, but they are rare because these people seek shelters and social services.

      LA and San Francisco have already reported intermittent outbreaks of shigellosis, a disease typically only seen in the developing world, most commonly associated with not washing hands after using the bathroom. If this “compassionate” approach becomes widespread (as I believe it will), most of our public spaces will be back at 1975 levels of desirability within a few years. At least William Whyte, ever the optimist, could still find a few nice ones back then.

      1. Chris B

        Here in your hometown, it’s also a worse problem than in the past, but the camps tend to be in more isolated spaces. Most often they seem to be along rail ROW or creeks in scrubby woodland (the latter sometimes in/near parks and trails).

        One recent exception was on a grassy triangular “island” where West and Missouri Streets split into a separated one-way pair between the Convention Center, the Vic, and the Belt RR. (That one was fenced off and cleared ahead of last year’s COVID Bubble NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament and it has stayed clear.)

        There is, as you point out without using the term, a social contract. When an activity or behavior gets beyond all permissive limits, there is pushback. A news feed article in the past few days described the extreme situations in Portland and SF, and comments from nominally “progressive” folks who are fed up with losing public spaces to encampment.

        The solution is obvious to me, but there doe not yet seem to be a broad understanding that some kind of modern short term mental health evaluation/confinement/treatment facilities are needed as the transition to any successful “housing first” program.

        1. AmericanDirt Post author

          Thanks for sharing Chris. I haven’t been to Indy since January of this year, and back then I noticed two places, though admittedly I wasn’t looking. One was on the south side, in the space where Lick Creek flows under both Madison Avenue and a rail ROW. It definitely fits your description of “scrubby woodland”. It’s somewhat visible here: No doubt highly unpleasant to people living in the nearby mobile home park, but they aren’t likely a high-priority constituency.

          The other one was near the Garfield Park neighborhood, along I-65 north of Southern Avenue, in space that probably belongs to the I-65 ROW. Much less obscure and horrible for the homeowners nearby.

          The situation in Seattle, LA, SF, and most West Coast cities exceeded tolerable status along time ago, but there at least seem to be half-hearted efforts to resolve it in high-profile areas like Venice Beach or Sausalito. Granted, this usually just involves pushing the problem elsewhere, most often to places where incomes and political capital are lower. But at least there’s acknowledgement of the problem, which is half the battle.

          This rubric applies everywhere, with the exception of Portland. In the Rose City, it’s not just the tents but the bombed-out RVs parked alongside any road with on-street parking and a lack of public will to tow. It’s virtually every downtown park space outside of the Waterfront (which they seem to generally keep clean for weekend visitors). It’s Portland’s equivalent of the Monon Trail, now filled with tents. Granted, Portland has many more Monon-type bike trails than Indy, but with so many overtaken, I question what percentage of the very generous trail network is still usable for recreation. And, unlike most other West Coast cities, there seems to be no public will to remove these encampments, as though people either accept them or (more likely) are simply cowed into silence by the overwhelming groupthink that has consumed even the most banal functions in that most ideologically homogeneous of American cities.

          I”m with you that the solution seems obvious: that forced rehab should be part of the sentencing for anyone violating public decency laws that come through open drug use. After all, “housing first” is completely unimplementable when such a sizable portion of the homeless can’t even maintain a tent or RV in basic sanitation conditions, let alone one of Jimmy Carter’s Habitat homes.

    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Indeed, though I guess skateparks were still in pretty short supply up to the point of Bacon’s death in 2005. By some people’s metrics, they’re still in short supply.

    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Thanks for sharing Jeffrey. This video manages to cover a tremendous amount of a material succinctly and accessibly, and I commend it for that. The makers even recognize the deterrent of classical music and “mosquitoes”, which I hope to cover in the not-too-distant future. They included a few features that I wasn’t even aware of, like blue lights in public restrooms to make it harder for drug addicts to find a vein. Given that most private businesses (Starbucks notwithstanding) don’t want to run the slightest risk of liability to having an OD take place in their restrooms–let alone the horrible PR that comes from it–it seems reasonable to not accommodate intravenous drug users. (I also wonder if Starbucks has kept up the practice in drug-friendly places like Oakland and San Fran and Portland after the kerfuffle a few years ago.)

      But the video lost me, as almost all similar arguments do, when it used the canard phrase “root causes”, which of course implies something as unified and simplistic as our common conception of a tree root (which also isn’t always unified and is never that simplistic). The video then suggests that the prevailing human tendency toward kindness “causes us to rebel” against hostile design because we tend to be better than the politicians. But then it fails to ask: what would prompt the politicians to install these in the first place? Could it possible be because the homeless colonization of public spaces was eliciting enough calls from the constituency in general? And if people rebel against this “mean-ness” intrinsic to hostile design, are we starting to suffer the consequences of excessive kindness? What does this Seattle overpass (where the bike racks were installed and then removed) look like today? Are we achieving Pareto efficiency by being so accommodating to the homeless that many public spaces are rendered unusable by everyone else? Why is it unconscionable to lob the allegation “selfish” when a homeless person makes a permanent home of a park bench, given that we would use precisely such an epithet if a middle class person camped out on a bench for an eight-hour period? Are we helping the homeless individual by expecting so little (basically nothing at all) from him or her, thereby fulfilling the prophecy of hopelessness?

      One particular example in the video struck me: it mentioned how Heathrow Terminal 5 offers inadequate seating for its many customers. So the only option is for customers to patronize a shop/restaurant to procure that extra seating. “And if you can’t afford it, well, discomfort might drive you in there anyway”. This is a strange hypothetical, given that anyone who makes it this far in a Heathrow terminal is already planning on traveling by airplane, which almost certainly translates to being something other than lower class–i.e., having enough money to afford at least a basic product in one of those shops with the seating. Not being perfectly inclusive isn’t tantamount to being exclusionary. It’s not a black-white equation.

      In short, the video makes (somewhat by implication) the glib assertion that “root causes” almost entirely stem towards social neglect, while overlooking the fact that the root causes would also include the sentiment–the escalating public distaste–that prompted those armrests and flanges and high-pitched mosquitoes to begin with. It’s all tangled together, and if we embrace “rough sleeping” among the homeless because anything else is unkind, we can expect that the public spaces that in the 1990s became vibrant (the ones Jacobs and Whyte could praise even when cities were at their nadir) may once again approach the conditions they faced in 1979. But in 2022, we don’t have competing suburban shopping malls as a reprieve. I hope we don’t get there. But I think things will have to get worse before they get better. Branding these 1990s-era architectural strategies as “hostile” isn’t going to do Rittenhouse Square or Bryant Park or Dupont Circle any favors.

      1. Jeffrey Jakucyk

        “Why is it unconscionable to lob the allegation “selfish” when a homeless person makes a permanent home of a park bench, given that we would use precisely such an epithet if a middle class person camped out on a bench for an eight-hour period?”

        I guess the difference is that one person is there for leisure/pleasure and the other is trying to survive.

        1. AmericanDirt Post author

          Having spent the past few years in a metro that has confronted an astronomical growth in homelessness (as most big cities have), I’ve at least tried to personalize/customize my understanding of the condition of the people living under the overpasses within a few blocks of my own home.

          One overpass had, until recently, an older gentleman who kept his space in impeccable condition. He had a cot and a few large Tupperwares of supplies, and when passers-by donated food/water, he kept it close at hand and only used a tiny portion of the sidewalk. He showed discipline and restraint. I suspect he was able to avail himself of services (toilet/shower) at a senior center just a block away, but it was clear he otherwise wanted to keep to himself, not engaging with the “community” of a larger encampment. After camping at this site for 18 months, he disappeared about two months ago. My hope is that he was on the wait list for a space at the retirement center a block away, and they finally found room for him. I’ll never know. But I respect the guy’s discipline and suspect that he was, as you noted, “trying to survive” and was genuinely down on his luck.

          I do not believe this characterizes the 7-9 people living at an encampment at an overpass two blocks away. They scatter their “territory” across the entire sidewalk, rendering it unusable for other passers-by, who would clearly feel like intruders. They light fires at night. Their possessions (which include over a dozen bikes, some of which are clearly stolen since they’re part of DC’s bike share) are scattered everywhere, but at least they recently put up a partition to conceal the stuff that was most obviously stolen. Graffiti around this encampment has exploded in the last year. But the City provides a Port-o-john about 200 feet away, at the corner of a city park with lots of yuppie tennis courts, so they have their place to defecate in privacy–a perk for which I’m grateful. (I haven’t yet seen in DC what apparently is so notoriously commonplace in San Francisco, though I know others who have witnessed it.)

          These people, however, represent the standard for the overwhelming majority of homeless in DC and most cities. (A relative who lived and worked with homeless says this characterizes about 95% of the chronically homeless.) They aren’t down on their luck, unless the bad luck includes opioids (a generous definition). The down-on-their-luck contingent usually find housing within a few months or weeks. And they avail themselves of shelters, most of which refuse to accommodate the drug addicts because of the liability involved. Even unmedicated schizophrenics are an extreme minority. The ones living in this graffiti and trash-riddled overpass are choosing to survive as perpetual drug addicts, and this includes the requisite thievery needed to maintain their habit.

          I recognize that this only ties loosely to the people stretched out on park benches and the hostile design, but this characterization is why I personally don’t feel it’s unreasonably to use the “selfish” epithet for anyone and everyone who colonizes a park bench all day and long. I recognize that I’m not the most compassionate person. But I’ve gotten to this point by learning the folly of no-strings-attached compassion–that it enables some of the most depraved and sad behavior, like consigning tens of thousands of people to permanent zombie status rather than compelling them to rise above it as they deserve to do. Given that homeless encampments in West Coast cities are facing increasingly common outbreaks of typhoid and shigellosis, how far do we carry this kindness for those trying to survive before we ensnare ourselves in their dysfunction? And if we do this, exactly who are we helping in the aggregate?


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