The Use of Architecture Against Those Experiencing Homelessness

Hostile architecture is a phenomenon seen more and more as city officials attempt to hide the reality of the homelessness crisis. They make efforts to forcefully remove individuals without housing from the only places they feel safe to rest. This hostility shows that they are not regarded as a part of their community; officials would rather hide them than provide adequate housing options. 

Have you ever been walking through a park and noticed changes to the public architecture? Maybe there are arm-rests between seats on a bench where there used to be none. Or the addition of decorative boulders on the sidewalks. What you are seeing is not just a new design but an inherently anti-homeless case of hostile architecture.

Hostile architecture, often referred to as defensive architecture, is typically defined as an intentional design strategy that uses elements of the built environment to guide or restrict behavior in urban spaces. The majority of hostile architecture targets people who use these public spaces more, including skateboarders, substance users, youth, or people who are homeless. Many individuals who do not have housing feel unsafe within their cities’ shelters, and officials redesigning public spaces to prevent them from resting is taking away their only option.

There are many different forms of hostile architecture that you will find by simply walking through your city. One of the most common is the addition of multiple arm-rests on benches in between each seat. City officials have tried to hide their true intentions by depicting this decision as a way to provide more public seating. (People may be more likely to sit next to a stranger if there is a barrier between them.) These arm-rests make laying down on the bench impossible, which prevent those without shelter from sleeping on the public benches. Other examples of hostile architecture against the homeless population include the resurfacing of smooth sidewalks with pebbles and gravel to make them uncomfortable to sit on, spikes on the sidewalks, sprinklers, or even high-pitched alarms to deter unhoused individuals seeking a place to rest.

When it comes to using hostile architecture against those who are homeless, San Francisco is not innocent. In 2019 homeowners in Mission Dolores raised $2,000 to place 24 100-pound boulders on the sidewalks of Dolores and Market Streets. This act targeted unhoused individuals who would often set up tents and sleep there. These individuals ended up pushing the boulders into the street in order to sleep on the sidewalks. Hostile architecture in this city is not a new phenomenon. In the 1990s, officials removed public benches from Civic Central Park in the middle of the night, and the same event was repeated in the United Nations Plaza in 2001. San Francisco’s history of using architecture against the unhoused shows cruelty to its own citizens.

The message sent by these cities to those without housing is clear: you are not welcome here. City officials claim that these design changes are meant to make public spaces more safe and accessible, but they are clearly selective about who deserves to be safe and have access to these spaces. They would rather remove those experiencing homelessness from their sight than address the issue properly and take steps to create affordable housing for those in need. Hostile architecture is a direct attack on individuals experiencing homelessness and indicates that they are not thought of as a part of the community they reside in.


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