Defensive urbanism: homeless face hard, heavy new hurdles. Jersey style.

It’s been almost two years exactly since I featured various metal rods, rings, and ridges carefully positioned at select locations in various parks and civic plazas in Oakland and San Francisco.  Aside from alliteration, these rods, rings, and ridges shared one ambition: to prevent people from engaging in certain undesirable activities at these public gathering spaces.  The “rings”, usually a thick, washer-like protrusion on an angled metal bannister, intend to stop skateboarders from grinding or performing other stunts that can damage the infrastructure.  The “rods” and “ridges”, meanwhile, often rest at tidy intervals on large horizontal surfaces (benches or rows of immovable chairs) to keep loiterers and homeless people from monopolizing them by lying across seats intended to accommodate multiple people.  The “rods” might be arm rests, while the ridges are just humps that make it too uncomfortable to lie horizontal and snooze.  Though a common feature in urban spaces for decades, these little doohickeys have achieved greater controversy under increasingly salient pejoratives like “hostile design” or “defensive urbanism”.

With this new article, I don’t want to say “they’re baaaaack”, because they never really went anywhere.  Defensive urbanism is still prevalent across urban America, though the backlash is growing.  In fact, the strategies and devices used to thwart perceived deviant behavior are growing in size—not just prevalence.  Most of the doodads that I featured in the Oakland/SF article were tiny enough to fit in a purse, notwithstanding the armrests on benches.  The example below is a wee bit larger…obviously.

defensive urbanism: jersey barriers to stop homeless encampments at a DC underpass

Visible on the lower-right in the photo below are a bunch of low-rise concrete protrusions, largely operating as bollards but marginally capable of being moved.  (Though too heavy to lift, they are not in this instance permanently embedded in the concrete sidewalk below them.)

Most people call these heavy concrete obstructions Jersey barriers, though Jersey bump and Jersey wall are also regionally familiar terms to practitioners.  An old commenting friend reminded me that another name, K-rail, is popular on the West Coast, incidentally where the devices originated.  Nonetheless, the Garden State further advanced the technology and helped to promulgate it.  So the “Jersey” name has generally stuck.

Even if many Americans didn’t have a name for them, they have encountered Jersey barriers at least visually, rather than in a collision (I hope).  For the most part, they remain the paradigm for redirecting vehicular traffic, either permanent or temporary, exactly as intended when California DOT first pioneered them in the 1940s.  By the 1950s, New Jersey traffic engineers took the California prototype and modified it to make it more movable; most original efforts were fixed into place through poured concrete.  These Jersey engineers also boosted the height; original iterations were only about 18 inches.  In making the partition wall taller, the base needed a broader support, about twice as much as the top of the waist-high partition, giving the barrier an upside-down V-shape appearance.  (The transition from thick base to thin wall also creates a steep curb-like effect, minimizing the likelihood of vehicle rollover if it approaches the Jersey barrier obliquely at high speeds.) Hoboken-based Stevens Institute of Technology largely earns credit for the 32-inch-tall design, completed in 1959, that eventually became ubiquitous: the patent survives for a steel-reinforced concrete fabrication that is too heavy for a human to lift (about 600 pounds per linear foot) but easily moved by machinery, and sufficiently modular to allow linking barriers into rows.  Though obviously more expensive than guardrail, it is vastly stronger and safer.

The Jersey barrier’s combination of movability, durability, and resistance to force makes it ideal at 1) separating lanes, 2) prohibiting unsafe crossings, or 3) restricting access.  And function #3 is precisely the defensive urbanism tactic visible in the photo above.  But it’s not for cars; it’s for people.

In the above photo, I’m standing at the M Street NE underpass in Washington DC—the space below an enormous Amtrak train viaduct that separates the NoMa (North of Massachusetts Avenue) neighborhood from the Near Northeast.  Just a few blocks south of this underpass is Washington DC’s landmark Union Station, the headquarters of Amtrak and one of the largest hubs in the country for commuter rail: aside from Amtrak, the huge building hosts a statin for the metropolitan subway system (WMATA), Virginia Railway Express (VRE), and Maryland Area Regional Commuter (MARC).  The various platforms and tracks serving Washington Union Station extend northward before diverging at the WMATA Brentwood Rail Yard north of New York Avenue NE.

The screen shot of a Google map depicts the rail yards with Union Station at the south (in a purple circle) and the Brentwood Rail Yard at the north (in the brown circle)).  The swathe of rails cross over three important east-west collector roads: K Street, L Street, and M Street North NE (all orange circles).

Each one of these streets features a large underpass to retain east-west contiguity around the viaduct.  And, in the modern era, each one has served as a respite from the elements for Washington DC’s homeless population.  The milieu is understandable: these underpasses offer proximity to a major hub to the northeast corridor’s rail network, combined with urban resources for homeless, and, of course, overhead shelter for those homeless who either repudiate the charities or cannot use them because overnight beds are full.  Each one of these three streets’ underpasses have long held the reputation as an overnight campsite for vagrants, but the situation never amounted more than a peripheral concern: little more than a few people sleeping overnight, then moving to the next destination.

The conditions prompting the defensive urbanism escalated in the late 2010s, as the previously neglected neighborhoods on either side of the rail viaduct gentrified significantly.  The former parking lots of NoMa (west of the viaduct) have burgeoned with mixed-use multifamily residential buildings, while the older rowhouses of Near Northeast (to the east) have shifted from predominantly African-American working class families to affluent young professionals, often living in three-bedroom houses alone (or with roommates).  At the same time, the prevalence of homelessness has increased in concurrence with the opioid epidemic.  Charities and businesses that can no longer meet the demand for sheltering services have donated tents to the cause—including REI, which opened a location a mere two hundred feet from where I stood in those photos.  And with tents, the homeless no longer have an incentive to relocate.

COVID lockdowns, business closures, and sudden job losses fostered a compounding socioeconomic crisis that caused the urban homeless rate to spike.  By late 2021 and 2022, the underpasses for all three of these lettered streets were replete with tent clusters, or encampments.  Google Street View reveals the L Street underpass looking like this in October 2021, while the M Street underpass featured in my photos was no better in August of that year.  Union Station itself, long a respite for panhandlers who lurked amidst the surrounding plazas, turned into an expansive homeless settlement.  Here’s a photo I snapped of Columbus Circle in November 2021 with Union Station in the background:

Prior to the pandemic, pedestrians had consistently traversed these underpasses, walking past panhandlers whose claim to this turf became increasingly long-term, concurrent with high-caliber REI tents replacing the cardboard boxes of yesteryear.  But increasingly vociferous concern from residents in the two neighborhoods prompted local council members to act: reports of break-ins, vandalism, open drug use, and public indecency quelled the desirability of these two gentrifying neighborhoods.  Residents broke their leases in the fancy apartment buildings nearby.  At its worst, however, the prevalence of homeless tents was so great that people struggled to pass through.

At the same time, almost as a complement to the defensive urbanism, a separate installation revealed the long-term ambitions of civic leaders in the two neighborhoods.

defensive urbanism: Jersey barriers to prevent homeless encampments

Looking across the other side of M Street NE at the underpass, the Jersey barriers are still visible on the sidewalk.  But this and the previous underpass photo also reveal an unusual fixture dangling from the ceiling, like icicles or stalactites.  These filaments in aggregate are Rain, a years-in-the-making artistic installation consisting of 2,000 polycarbonate tubes that pulse with bluish LED light whenever cars pass by.  The artistic and architectural team that conceived Rain completed the project in October 2018, only about a year and a half before COVID closures prompted the proliferation in homeless tents.  A companion installation, Lightweave, offers a discrete yet similarly garish LED display on the L Street NE under a block south.  Lightweave opened just six months after Rain, in April 2019.  During the construction of these two civic art projects, District authorities and the NoMa Parks Foundation cleared the area of homeless camps.  And, almost immediately upon completion of the fancy light displays, the camps returned.

Both Rain and Lightweave intended to aestheticize the underpasses and enhance their safety through added illumination, increasing comfort for the many pedestrians that traverse these passages, especially at night.  One could assert that they both represent defensive urbanism as well, albeit with a much softer touch than the Jersey barriers.  Unfortunately, a fire in the earliest days of COVID lockdowns caused damage to L Street NE’s Lightweave, forcing its closure only a year after opening, with repairs not completed until 2022.  The exact origin of the fire appears to remain unclear, though the prevalence of minor propane-related cooking fires at the encampments prompts some inevitable conclusions.  No one sustained injuries in the fire, but several people living in tents lost all their remaining possessions.

While I’m sure other people have voiced the same sentiment, I’ll go out on a limb and put it in writing: the fire that significantly damaged a costly new art installation was no doubt the straw that broke the camel’s back, prompting the defensive urbanism in the form of Jersey barriers at both the M Street SE and L Southeast SE underpasses, amidst much objection that the “evicted” homeless were not receiving enough time or resources to find alternative shelter and support. Unofficially, these underpasses became “no tent” zones; the barriers essentially strove to making striking a tent physically impossible.  The District did not employ similar defensive urbanism at Columbus Circle outside Union Station, yet the tents are generally no longer present.  At this massive, open-air plaza, routine and stringent enforcement is what keeps the tents at bay.

(Incidentally, the K Street SE underpass has never faced encampments of such magnitude.  With more vehicular lanes/cartways and narrower sidewalks, it offers less room for homeless to build tents without impeding pedestrian access.  As a result, authorities tend to enforce camping more stringently at K Street SE than the two companion streets to the north.  Most likely non-coincidental, K Street SE did not until recently enjoy the investment in civic art, though that recently changed with a brand-new rotating art gallery installed under improved lighting at this underpass.  Still no Jersey barriers on K Street SE though—not enough room.)

The fact that these DC examples of defensive urbanism are less scattershot than the ones I featured in Oakland two years ago has more to with my journalistic approach and subject matter, rather than widespread philosophical differences between West and East.  Hostile design and defensive urbanism face the same bifurcated response on both coasts.  Neighbors complain loudly about dire conditions and crime caused by the encampments, and yet, when a city government acts to break them up, neighbors complain about the lack of humanity involved.  Other cities, like Portland, Seattle, and San Francisco, have resorted to installing gnarly “boulders” to reduce horizontal surfaces at underpasses where people can build tents.  It all constitutes defensive urbanism, and people at all increments of the political spectrum tend to agree that these are band-aids: dissolution of a homeless camp is only temporarily unless made permanent through barriers, and those barriers only push the homeless to the next-closest area where such barriers do not exist.

Regarding defensive urbanism’s long-term moral implications, I tend to maintain the same arguments I made two years ago: truly equal-opportunity use of public space means that everyone must enjoy it on equal terms, and rules that apply to the housed must also apply to the “unhoused”.  Otherwise, the homeless will inevitably monopolize, rendering public spaces a repository for those who lack any private alternatives.  Tragic though it may be that so many people in 2024 lack any private housing recourse, public agencies do the public good no favors by relegate public plazas to charity.  During the worst days of the pandemic, the only action that prevented the L and M Street SE underpasses from becoming complete obstructed by tents was rudimentary enforcement.  A similar lack of enforcement (including making mass transit free to users) has routinely relegated those transit systems to the domain of those who have no other options.  Members of the public who support public transit but have the wherewithal to use cars or cabs will opt out of transit if they find the conditions unlivable.

Bearing in mind that I am, up to this point, merely critiquing the problem that necessitates defensive urbanism as the solution, I can only maintain that, in the absence of institutions that treat the psychosocial deviancy that creates homelessness, it will only move around.  Hopscotch.  Leapfrog.  In Washington DC, the new homeless epicenter, from what I can see, is the southernmost point of Rock Creek Park, near the Kennedy Center and the outskirts of the Foggy Bottom neighborhood.  This was the image I encountered on the fringes of George Washington University campus, at Triangle Park, in December of 2023:

This park was filled with homeless in June of 2021.  But largely clean in November of 2022.  Then, a little over a year later, it looked like this:

Worse than it was in 2021.  Do they need to fill a green space like this with Jersey barriers to keep out the campers?  Such an approach would be indefensible from both an aesthetic and environmental perspective—the whole point of public green spaces is a relief from all the imperviousness.  And Foggy Bottom is not a poor neighborhood in the least; it has been fancy for decades, unlike NoMa and Near Northeast that were marginal until recently.

Meanwhile, defensive urbanism may fend off most encampments at L and M Street SE (and the two gentrifying neighborhoods).  But they aren’t foolproof.  The same day as my first photo on this blog article, all taken in June 2024, I encounter this telltale sign:

defensive urbanism: Jersey barriers at an underpass in Washington DC

Not enough space to pitch a tent, but still room to curl up in a pile of blankets. It’s almost like top-down solutions will always have to face-down the bottom-up reality.  And no matter how concrete or steel-reenforced the defensive urbanism might be, it’s no match for human determination.  Where there’s a will, there’s a way.  The corny platitude will stand solid longer than any Jersey barrier.

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5 thoughts on “Defensive urbanism: homeless face hard, heavy new hurdles. Jersey style.

  1. Chris B

    “the absence of institutions that treat the psychosocial deviancy”

    Closing instead of reforming state mental institutions certainly seems to be one root cause. Of course, another generation of undertreated PTSD among the veterans of America’s Longest War is not helping matters either.

  2. DianaLeigh

    I agree with Chris B. When Reagan encouraged mental institutions be closed, it was cheered and jeered. But I don’t think anyone I knew visualized the growth of homelessness on the streets.
    Your term defensive urbanism is a new one to me. Is it a sociological term or a political term?

    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Kind of a combination, which I guess usually is the case (most sociological theories have considerable political overlap). These “defensive urbanism” tactics have been around for decades, mostly to keep nuisance activity (loitering, destructive skateboarding) at bay. But it’s usually been little things like armrests on benches. Only recently have they started pulling out the big guns.

  3. Chris B

    The cumbersome descriptor sometimes used in the 00’s was “crime prevention through environmental design”. While that meant, among other things, lighting underpasses and playing Barry Manilow music at c-stores, its intent was similar. “Defensive urbanism” is an urban design term somewhat broader than CPTED was.

    Here’s part of a larger definition from Planetizen:

    “Part of a broader strategy to control public space, defensive urbanism manipulates public space to achieve social goals. The ‘social engineering’ of public space dates back to at least the 19th century, when elements of urban design tried to prevent behavior like public urination”

    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      A project I worked on from 2017 to 2020 still referenced “CPTED” routinely, and it featured heavily in the final report. And it definitely includes some of the items you are talking about. Also involves anti-terrorism strategies like carefully curated shrubbery that looks aesthetic and natural but doesn’t allow the easy concealment of perpetrators or their weapons/explosives.

      Generally, I think CPTED is more to prevent violent crime, while defensive urbanism is more about nuisance behavior and trespassing. Jersey barriers are a fairly new introduction, I believe. Expensive.


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