Whether it’s armrests dividing benches, or spikes surrounding buildings, anti-homeless architecture is inhumane.
Often politely labelled “defensive architecture,” some public spaces are designed to interfere with activities outside their intended use. By structurally preventing loitering, cities criminalize occupying a public place without an explicit purpose.
Cities install metal rivets on low walls to prevent skateboard tricks, incline benches to discourage loitering, and emit high-pitched noises only heard by younger people to ward off boisterous teenagers. However, while young people are impacted, homeless people bear the brunt of these restrictive measures. In extreme cases, cities have placed animal excrement in places homeless people frequent.
Defensive architecture divides a population into those welcome in a public space and those not.
Oscar Newman, a 1970s architect, believed in designing urban spaces as “the physical expression of a social fabric that defends itself.”
It’s easier to discourage unwanted behaviour when urban spaces do it for you. As this idea proliferates in architecture, cities become inhospitable by design.
A police officer doesn’t have to tell someone not to sleep on a public bench if nobody can lie there in the first place.
In Kingston, benches throughout the city’s downtown core have unnecessary centre armrests, denying some people the space needed to sleep. While some storefronts have “no loitering” signs, others have bars making it impossible to sit on the windowsills.
A person can’t walk down Princess Street without encountering someone asking for spare change. As of 2016, there were 137 homeless people living in the city. Whilst Kingston has homelessness prevention initiatives in place—such as shelters and rehousing programs—it’s also host to architecture discriminating against its homeless population.
While it’s encouraging the city has invested in its downtown infrastructure, it’s done so without considering how it may harm other people.
Although these examples are a less aggressive cousin to laying spikes on the ground in external building alcoves, their impact remains the same—they hide homeless people from the public eye.
Architecture can create cities that treat homeless people with dignity and respect rather than discrimination. A Vancouver non-profit installed benches that not only allow for an individual to lie flat, but also open to provide shelter against inclement weather. These double as advertisements for homeless shelters, providing safe alternatives to sleeping outside.
No one should have to sleep on a bench or beg for money, but this isn’t how we should care for homeless people. When we prevent certain groups from using public spaces, we change the definition of what public is.
Defensive architecture makes our communities more hostile overall. Cities should invest in helping individuals, not in architecture trying to hide them away.
Amelia is The Journal’s Video Editor. She’s a third-year Fine Arts major.
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