The Unethicality of Hostile Architecture

Hostile architecture is placed city-wide throughout the United States and has a particularly pervasive presence in San Francisco. Defined as “the design of public spaces in a way that stops unwanted behavior,” hostile architecture significantly restricts already limited public areas where people who are homeless can sleep outside of alternative housing options. In a single night, up to 1,200 individuals can be waitlisted for a bed in a shelter in San Francisco. With no other options, these individuals must rely on public spaces to sleep. 

Spikes on the ground near building alcoves or window ledges are an obvious example of hostile architecture, clearly intended to prevent anyone from sleeping in those areas. However, the city is full of other designs camouflaged under the guise of functionality and aesthetics.

Benches with “armrests” are intended to hinder a person from lying down; wooden benches on Mission, across the street from the old Rincon Street post office, fold up and lock so people who are homeless can’t use them at night. Benches have been completely removed and replaced with large garden planters at the Civic Center Courthouse. Boulders placed under freeway passes and sidewalks, resurfaced with raised pebbles and rocks, ward off homeless encampments. In 2019, retrofitted gates in Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) stations were dubbed “inverted guillotines” after going viral on Twitter

An extreme measure, “anti-pee paint,” a hydrophobic, oleophobic nano-coating, has been sprayed on numerous building walls in downtown San Francisco. Its purpose? To splash urine from surfaces and back onto individuals, regardless of public urination being made illegal in 2002

“A lot of the [street] design, in general, these days is creating an environment where people who are marginalized are not welcome,” said Kelley Cutler, human rights organizer at the Coalition on Homelessness, in an interview with KQED.

People experiencing homelessness already face hardships and obstacles that only continue to marginalize them. Hostile architecture is dehumanizing and unethical; it minimizes what little options San Francisco’s community of homeless has. City leaders and urban planners must design with empathy and recognize that hostile architecture only makes it harder for those experiencing homelessness. Offering certain areas designed to reject houseless individuals only pushes them to populate other areas of the city. The plan should not be designed to exclude, but rather create more affordable living options for low-income families and those experiencing homelessness.


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