Several weeks ago I noted what I believe is a misbegotten campaign loosely branded “hostile design”, which seeks to galvanize criticism toward the now-ubiquitous effort of preventing people from getting too comfortable in shared public spaces—so comfortable it constitutes (in some people’s option) outright abuse of that shared civic trust. We’ve all seen examples: carefully placed metal flanges on ledges and sloped railings to keep skaters from grinding and damaging them. Or armrests in the middle of long benches, largely to preclude the homeless from spending loitering and sleeping all day. The majority of these examples of hostile design—or at least the most obvious ones—are physical impediments that make it either uncomfortable or downright unsafe to engage in actions that vitiate the other guests’ more benign use and enjoyment of park and plaza furniture. It’s not entirely different from pigeon spikes, the trans-species effort intended to keep our avian friends from loitering and defecating where such behavior is particularly undesirable. The hostile design movement doesn’t like this. As far as the appeal and magnetism of urban parks or plazas is concerned, it’s equally ugly when humans build their roost there.
These attempts at embedding hostile design (also referred to as “defensive urbanism”) have elicited increasingly vocal detractors—those who see such initiatives as cruel and inhumane, particularly as they preclude homeless individuals from enjoying an urban park’s amenities. While I recognize this approach—the armrests, the flanges, the boulders—does in fact create an equivalent to pigeon spikes for humans, it signifies an unwelcoming environment just as much to the person who wants to sneak a nap on a nearby park bench during a lunch break from work. Though the homeless are the implied target, the ultimate effort is to stymie a behavior rather than just certain sociological subgroups. (I nonetheless will not deny the overlap between certain subgroups and those discouraged behaviors.)
Not all defensive urbanism is physical and tactile, though. A growing number of business owners have tried subtler strategies that are almost exclusively audible. Take this corner convenience store along 8th Street SE in Washington DC.
It’s part of the Barracks Row commercial corridor, a generally lively place filled with a blend of well-known chains and eclectic local restaurants, as well as a few other services (alterations, insurance, spas, salons) all using the signature 19th century commercial typology (storefront on the ground floor, apartments and offices above) that characterizes the surrounding Capitol Hill neighborhood. One block of 8th Street SE is a bit more troubled than the others—specifically the one closest to the nearby Eastern Market WMATA metro stop. No doubt due to its proximity to mass transit, the western side of this block tends to attract a fair number of loiterers: panhandlers, substance abusers, and even some fringe political militants who seek to disseminate their message to people coming out of the subway. Virtually all of these individuals congregate exclusively on the one side of 8th Street, with the 7-Eleven in the above photo serving as the culminating node. I’m not sure why, but the sidewalks outside convenience stores are common places for panhandlers and loiterers, perhaps because so many people come in and out quickly, sometimes to make a quick small purchase that breaks a large denomination bill. The prices in convenience stores are high though, so it’s not a smart decision for people living hand-to-mouth on the often starchy food offerings inside a 7-Eleven.
And if the physical evidence is any indicator, the franchise owners of this 7-Eleven aren’t crazy about all those loiterers. How do we know? Up in a shadowy corner, just out of reach, we see the prime defensive urbanism device.
Contrary to expectations, it’s not a security camera; it’s a speaker. And here’s what was playing at the time of this visit.
It’s not easy to hear with the din of cars and voices nearby, but it’s obviously piano. Chopin, I think. Is this 7-Eleven playing one of the DC area’s classical radio stations? I don’t think so; the deejays usually interrupt now and then (far less frequently than pop music), but I never heard that at this spot. Here it’s Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms all the time, pivoting occasionally to Vivaldi, Mozart, and Tchaikovsky. Maybe even Verdi and Puccini. But never a drum kit or electric guitars. The deployment of classical music is a time-tested tactic to deter loitering, particularly targeting young people (often not homeless), who are the most likely to find classical music repellent; it isn’t cool enough. But if the classical music is sufficiently loud, it’ll push all ages to another location, since it keeps them from talking on the sidewalk space right outside the entry door.
Music as defensive urbanism has yielded mixed but mostly positive results. While one initiative several years ago in West Palm Beach quickly fizzled out after loiterers destroyed the speakers—they can use bats as clubs unless the speakers are really out of reach—most have yielded positive enough outcomes to justify a commitment to the practice. Authorities in London introduced classical music to quite a few crime-prone Tube stations; robberies, vandalism, and assaults on staff all declined by more than 25% within a year and a half. Businesses in Portland, Dallas, Seattle, and Columbus have all introduced initiatives in recent years, featuring subtly placed speakers that pipe classical music. In fact, a cluster of 7-Eleven owners helped formulate the idea, attempting to address loitering through Liszt on loudspeakers back in the mid 1980s. The entire goal among these 7-Eleven managers was to deter loitering and crime-prone teens, which is a far more deliberate demographic targeting than metal flanges on railings and ledges (because some skateboarders are middle-aged!). But the installation proved equally effective at deterring pretty much anyone of any age who might seek to loiter and panhandle outside a busy convenience store. It caught on quickly.
Proponents of the classical music deterrent cite it as yet another example of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED), and praise it for its innocuous, non-violent method of discouraging the sort of socially undesirable behavior that, when unrestricted, frequently foreshadows crime. It’s loosely biochemical: pleasant music increases production of dopamine, the neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of pleasure, making people less prone to deviant behavior. (Conversely, if they dislike the music, it inhibits dopamine so they instinctively seek to avoid it.) CPTED aims for non-aggression and subtlety: well trimmed hedges and superior lighting prevent concealment of contraband or weaponry, which rank right up there with classical music as innocuous measures—a contrast from the hostile design of armrests on benches or boulders around highway overpasses. However, sociologists have pointed out the undercurrent of class snobbery accompanying this tactic: as a genre typically most popular with the upper-income elite, classical music tends to drive away the impoverished “riff-raff” most associated with crime, again suggesting real demographic targeting underlying this musical deployment.
The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra article I cited suggests that it evokes the cruel conditioning used in Clockwork Orange, where the anti-hero’s initial love of Beethoven while committing ultra-violence became channeled into revulsion through aversion therapy. I think the Lodovico technique seems like a bit of a thematic stretch, but I can’t deny that this approach encourages people to think poorly of music that has withstood the test of time. So it’s no surprise that classical music aficionados decry the way business owners have harnessed enduring musical masterpieces as a tool to repel people, consigning our Romantic ideals to a negative association that may ultimately deter potential new audiences. (And classical concerts can rarely claim overrepresentation of the under-60 crowd.)
An alternative strategy using many of the same mechanics as these out-of-reach speakers is the Mosquito, in which a mounted box emits a faint but extremely high-pitched, persistent sound. Particularly popular in the UK, this device is so invasive that almost no one who hears it wants to linger. The problem is, the Mosquito’s pitch is so high that only teens and very young adults can hear it; most people over the age of 30 have accrued enough age-related hearing loss that it won’t faze them. As a result, the Mosquito works almost exclusively for loitering teens—clear demographic targeting, but the target is less about homelessness, since they tend to be older. But it is also unbearable for children, babies, and teenagers with perfectly benign intentions.
The images of the 7-Eleven in Washington DC represent the archetypal example of classical music and CPTED. In fact, almost all my encounters with nocturnes, arias, concerti, and symphonies piped through subtle little speakers has been outside of 7-Elevens. In other words, a private initiative. But the articles I have cited recognize that municipal governments have deployed it as well. Only recently did I encounter such an example, and it was a surprising one.
Sure, it’s dark. Those colored lights aren’t necessarily enough to discern what this photo is capturing. But if you spot some massive steel cantilevered trusses, you’re probably on to something. It’s a bridge, this time over the Ohio River, leading into Louisville from a Jeffersonville, Indiana point of origin. And yes, it’s exclusively for pedestrians and bicyclists. Here’s a cruddy photo from the Louisville side of the river:
Needless to say, it’s much more expansive than the Springfield, Missouri ped bridge I covered several weeks ago—nearly a half-mile necessary to stretch across this particularly wide point in the Ohio River. But in this case, it’s a conversion: for decades it was the bridge serving the Big Four Railroad (Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago and St. Louis Railway), which operated from 1895 to 1968. After languishing for several decades, the governments of Indiana, Kentucky, and the City of Jeffersonville partnered to convert the bridge for pedestrian use, while providing ADA-compatible access ramps along either bank, which helped link the Louisville and Jeffersonville waterfronts. The repurposed bridge fully opened in spring 2014, providing uninterrupted pedestrian linkage between Indiana and Ohio, while offering distinctive views of the Louisville skyline.
Most germane to this article, however, is the sound that one detects while standing around the point in the photo above.
Yep, more classical music. And this one I knew: Handel. Water Music, I think. It’s a bit surprising to me that a path—a means of getting from A to B—would encourage people to linger, but the Big Four Bridge does offer historical placards as well as resting points across a span that many will find tiring.
Though I didn’t see much of it on the night that I ran across the Big Four Bridge, I can only guess that the City of Louisville (which has jurisdiction over nearly all of the Ohio River around here) determined that there was enough problem to deploy some CPTED best practices. I have a feeling teenagers would linger at various points on the bridge and taunt passers-by. And so, at the absolute middle of the Ohio River, at the highest point of the Big Four Bridge, visitors get the classical music treatment once again.
Handel isn’t all that hostile. Debussy is rarely defensive. Regardless of the age cohort targeted (if any age cohort at all), classical music is much less invasive than the Mosquito. Given the proximity of a massive body of water right below, I’m sure most people will find the winged, blood-sucking version more than enough to contend with.