Itâ€™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 thatâ€™s what I had to do a few weeks ago when Planetizen used the neologism (at least to me) â€śdefensive urbanismâ€ť 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 â€”that is, the practice of introducing micro-barriers that protect public spaces â€śagainst unwanted occupation by skateboarders and unhoused peopleâ€ť, among other things.
If the above description isnâ€™t clear enough, the photo below should shed light.
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 cityâ€™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 thereâ€™s anything wrong with that, of course. Its optimal, central locationâ€”with passers-by using BART to get to jobs in San Francisco or coming from across the Bay to work/live in downtown Oaklandâ€”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. Itâ€™s probably fairly busy during the lunch hour and during the peak periods for commutes.
But it doesnâ€™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? Itâ€™s those chrome â€śwashersâ€ťâ€”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 wonâ€™t do it.
Cross the bay over to San Francisco Civic Center Plaza and we see it again, on railings that arenâ€™t angled.
The skate stops are also common on ledges.
Concrete seating areas like the one in the above photo nearly always offer the telltale indicators of a skater, if they donâ€™t have those little impediments at the edge every few feet. Without them, the concrete gets discolored, worn, and eventually deteriorated through skatersâ€™ repeated attempts at grinding.
Perhaps more important within the context of the Pamela Youngâ€™s Canadian Architect article, however, is the installation in the background of the first Civic Center Plaza photo. Hereâ€™s a closer look.
Iâ€™m referring primarily to the benches in the background. Every two to three feet is a protruding â€śridgeâ€ť, 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 plazaâ€™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 theyâ€™re hardly exclusive to this milieu. Hereâ€™s an entirely unrelated gathering space in which the furniture operates under the same principles.
In this instance, the seating comes from Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport (SDF), but itâ€™s just as easy to refer to it as â€śan airportâ€ť. 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, itâ€™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 arenâ€™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 thereâ€™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 â€śunhoused or youthâ€ť (per Pamela Young) â€śare unwelcome to lingerâ€ť. Such a statement resonates in San Francisco, long one of the nationâ€™s epicenters of homelessness. And furniture with hostile design features can hardly speak more powerfully than in Friscoâ€™s Civic Center Plaza, long the domain of the chronically homeless, and just a stoneâ€™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 didnâ€™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 furnitureâ€”and, no doubt, the skate stopsâ€”as a â€śDESIGN CRIMEâ€ťâ€” for its tendency to attack â€śthe must vulnerable people in our community, regularly the homelessâ€ť.
To which I, an urban advocate, can only respond, â€śWell yes.â€ť 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 donâ€™t eliminate the park amenities, but they ensure that they donâ€™t face quick deterioration (from skatersâ€™ tricks) or colonization (from the homeless).
Pamela Young in Canadian Architect claims that arm rests are often â€śdisingenuousâ€ťâ€”only a few designs actually help mobility impaired people get in and out of a seating position. Well, yesâ€”but thatâ€™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: â€śat 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?â€ť
My response is cruelly dismissive: we cannot. Simply put, we must choose. The most vocal hostile design opponents genuinely envision urban parks with â€śservice kiosks. . .staffed by people with expertise in harm reduction and de-escalating conflict, and providing resources such as needles disposal.â€ť 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 â€śpeople with expertiseâ€ť 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 Pennâ€™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? Iâ€™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 railingsâ€”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 â€śthe most vulnerableâ€ť presupposes that some people arenâ€™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 â€śvulnerableâ€ť 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 â€śnon-vulnerableâ€ť, while doing nothing to improve the state of people mired in homelessness, addiction, and mental illness.
â€śHarm reductionâ€ť by this definition does not abide by a Pareto optimality paradigm any more than it encourages lively civic spaces based on Whyteâ€™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 endâ€¦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.